It seems like a small thing. Actually, it is a small thing. With everything going on in the world right now, I almost didn’t write about this because, frankly, who cares.

But through the microscope of my personal experience, it was huge. Last September, just before I started suffering insane side effects from my use of Adderall, I began shooting a short film. It was nothing world-changing. It barely qualified as art. But it was something I had written at a vulnerable moment, and it meant something to me. At almost that exact same time I finally melted. I became more depressed and anxious than any other time in my life. I started having panic attacks on a daily basis. Some nights I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t able to relax around other people. Simple tasks like showering or doing laundry became unbearable. I almost had to move back in with my parents because I just could not function on a day to day basis. I blogged about a lot of this last year, but that was before things got really bad. When things got really bad I didn’t have the words to express how bad they were.

This weekend, nine months later, I finished shooting that short film. Recovery has been slow and isn’t anywhere close to 100% complete. It’s still hard for me to focus for more than a few hours at a time. I still get bad headaches, and I’m very emotionally distant most of the time. It’s still harder for me to engage the world consistently than at any other time in my life, and I’ve suffered from severe depression since I was a teenager. Still, this was a symbolic reminder that I didn’t give up. While I don’t always feel like my efforts are actually working, this was real-world evidence that after changing nearly everything about my life, I could do something that I once feared I had lost the ability to do for good. I was able to pick up a task that I had to drop for nearly a year, and I was able to finally complete it.

And it felt amazing. It was the best I’ve felt since last summer.

A special thanks to Dawson Ehlke and Brickson Schwenn who both donated a not-insignificant amount of their lives to helping me finish. It meant a lot.

That’s all I have to say. Happy Pride weekend everyone.

Advertisements

Ryan Batman

Part 1 — Bootstraps

At a distance thing looked better than ever. I knew they did. I had worked hard to make them look that way.

I had just been promoted to supervisor at work and received a two dollar an hour pay raise. I was writing for a local website. It didn’t pay, but I was getting exciting networking opportunities. A few of my articles had earned me a decent following. I had been living for almost a year in my own apartment. I was planning an ambitious production of a little-known William Shakespeare play, with a cast and crew locked down and a good venue booked.

It had been years since I was first aware of my severe depression and anxiety; since I first started going three or four days without sleep, sometimes sleeping 20 or 22 hours instead; since I fell apart the last year of college and departed one class short of graduation;  since I laid on the floors of friends apartments staring at ceilings and walls because my emotions were racing so quickly I could do nothing else; since I failed to hold a job and moved into my parents’ basement; since I made a manic return to school which I self-sabotaged in an absurd manic episode; since I drove away dozens of friends, not understanding my own behavior, some calling me a toxic personality; even since I stumbled alone through Minneapolis living in a house for recently released prison inmates, regularly getting into car accidents, making myself throw up with anxiety, hoping nobody discovered my apartment and car were covered in trash, barely holding it all together.

But now things looked okay. At family gatherings I could tell people what I was doing with my life. I could be proud.

I had worked more than 52 hours a week, sometimes up to 70 or 85 hours, for over a year to get to this place. I had made a few new friends. I started dating again. I lost weight. I directed a play for the Fringe Festival in August. The show hadn’t gone especially well, but it was a far cry from the Fitzgeraldian tragedy I had been living up to that point.

Part 2 — It’s an Awful Sound When You Hit the Ground

The lie I had preserved for over a year, thankfully, came crashing down on my head one cold day in February.

It started with a physical illness; the kind it’s easier to admit you have out loud. I hadn’t taken a day off work for my health since I moved back to Minnesota, but with the heat in my apartment at ninety degrees, wrapped in two comforters, and shivering like a dead man, I found it necessary to take a week off work.

Lying there in bed, surrounded by the same trash and unwashed sheets and (I could faintly detect) the smell of mold, I wondered melodramatically if I died, how long would it take for anyone to notice? This was as much a practical question as a maudlin one. A distance had formed between myself and everyone who knew me. I blamed all of them for its creation, despite my being the common denominator. I avoided all phone calls, especially from my family. I had driven all my friends away. I hadn’t seen any of them in over a month.

At the end of the week, just as I was starting to feel better, I treated myself to a movie at the dollar theater in Hopkins. During the trailers I reached into my pocket and discovered my phone was gone. I looked all over the theater, traced my steps back to my car, then tore the car apart looking. The phone was nowhere. I knew I wasn’t going to find it. This used to happen to me all the time, when I was a kid stretching into my earliest years in college. It hadn’t happened for a while though.

I went back inside to finish the movie and then spent three hours trying to get my old Kindle charged and connected to internet to cancel my phone and make arrangements.

Both of these first two problems should have been tolerable, but there was a greater fear that made them disastrous. I didn’t want anyone to look too closely at my life. Viewed through a magnifying glass, my steady improvement could be seen more clearly as rapid deterioration. For every step forward, I became less human. I was living an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, hiding in the back corner of a dark room, thoughtless and blank, long past the point of remembering why I was there or how I intended to escape. I felt a deep, animalistic panic about the idea of anyone stumbling upon my hidden squalor.

The final blow to my facade was struck the very next day. I hadn’t checked the oil in my car in months, and driving down highway 169 I heard a weird sound in my engine. Within a mile my car was violently lurching. A hundred yards after that it was dead on a busy highway with no shoulder. Also, I had no phone.

In the cold February wind I stepped out and began flagging people down. All I was thinking was how angry I was, and how afraid I was that someone might look inside my car, see the food lying in the passenger seat, smell the cigarette smoke I had been hiding for years, notice how low my bank account had fallen despite all my work, realize it was all my fault.

It took two hours for a snow plow to pull over and offer to call the police. For two hours, in the cold, still sniffling, I stood in front of my car, waving my arms wildly, getting the attention of distracted drivers who came a little too close for comfort. They towed me to an auto body shop. The mechanic tried not to stare at the disaster of torn books and fast food bags and dirty clothes, passing a look midway between pity and embarrassment. The engine was dead, he said, and it would cost more than the total cost of the vehicle to repair it. I left the car, never to see it again.

The bus didn’t leave early enough for me to make my new job, and I had promised my parents I had plenty of money, so I took a rental car to work for the next two weeks. By the end of that period my account was overdrafted by nearly 500 dollars. I avoided the emails from the venue for my play, as well as my editor who wondered why I was skipping out on assignments. If anyone asked, everything was fine. Small problems don’t cripple big people. I was going to overcome all of this.

After work every day I crawled into bed and slept around 14 hours. I hated myself for my weakness, my laziness, my sloppiness. Phone calls kept ringing. I kept ignoring them. My voicemail filled up and I deleted each new entry without listening. I tried watching movies, but that was too stressful. For three days I rewatched the same five episodes Buffy the Vampire Slayer over and over. If you had asked me immediately following an episode what I had watched, I probably couldn’t have told you. In fact, whole weeks would go by during which I couldn’t recall a single detail. The very idea of forming words in my mind became exhausting.

Just for fun one night I decided to try writing a Buffy episode in my head to bone up on story structure. I fell asleep before I was able to muster even one sentence. 

I was just fine, thank you for asking.

Part 3 — Epiphany

Depression is a kind of insanity, and therefore it’s hard to explain in sane terms. Part of me was desperate and scared. Part of me also believed I was fine and I just needed to get over myself. With benefit of hindsight, I hadn’t been fine in a very long time–I started exhibiting many of these symptoms in early childhood–so I didn’t have much for comparison.

Often when severely depressed I’ve found thoughts and feelings escaping their anxious cages with seemingly no ties at all to anything I’m doing or feeling on the surface. Sometimes I would burst out crying for no apparent reason. Other times I would write about trees for an hour, then realize I had actually written about a friend who hadn’t called me back, or a task I was afraid of, or suicide. I was trying to send myself signals that I was incapable of receiving.

When my doctor asked me if my Prozac was working, I said possibly. We agreed it might be a good idea to double up my dosage. I told him nothing about my life up to that point. I didn’t want to complain. It seemed pointless.

The Prozac only helped me get to work each day. It made my head swim and my problems seem far away, but still my brain was unable to form words. This was a far cry from the Ryan who had once won contests with his writing, who took and passed genius tests as a child. 

This was the other Ryan–the one who, at the exact same time as a child, was also placed in the special needs program because he lost all his assignments, accidentally wrote on his forehead, wandered the house late at night worrying until he made himself throw up, and seemed lost in invisible, fanciful dramas nobody else was privy to.

I started drinking heavily, looking for whatever relief I could find to recharge for the next day. There is no paid sick leave for mental health. If I committed myself or sought a drastic solution, I could wind up broke and living with my parents again, possibly for good. I held on, just barely, for the next month. I drank more, finding the loss of inhibitions exhilarating. I started realizing that, while inebriated, I could make plans and speak honestly with myself in ways I couldn’t crippled by anxiety. I started recording these thoughts so I could listen to them the next day.

One night I went too far, which just happened to be far enough. It began with tears. I was crying uncontrollably. My hands were shaking. My room was dark. I was too anxious to even watch TV. I couldn’t bear the thought of living another day. The alcohol gave me just enough perspective to see I hadn’t been well for years, and to see all my actions as a slow, helpless decline that could only have ended up here. Even now, with the benefit of perspective, I know that was true.

I decided to try a game. In my head I was going to mentally chart a path to happiness, one that began with me, drunk, sitting on the couch. I would create a strong mental image of what I wanted and how I planned to obtain it, and use it as my light at the end of a tunnel. I thought about filmmaking, my original childhood dream. I tried a version of the story where I fell in love. In every situation, I couldn’t get beyond the first couple steps. I began realizing that my irrational anxiety, calibrated incorrectly by my broken brain, had attached itself to even my happiest memories. My stomach lurched even at the thought of love and fulfillment. At times my whole body would shut down and despite the fact that I had slept plenty and it was the middle of the day, I would pass out while trying to think about these things.

 

I’ve never been a drug abuser. I don’t judge those who do it safely. It’s just never been my thing. But I was scared of myself, and the idea of ending it all was becoming just too tempting. I had realized how easy, how natural it was to slip off to sleep; thought how a bottle of sleeping pills might just make it permanent. 

I wasn’t quite ready for that yet. I thought, what else can I try that I haven’t thought of yet? I recalled one night, years earlier, when I took some adderall with alcohol. I had felt invincible. I needed to feel invincible to conquer this. So that night I downed a whole bottle of whiskey and a couple pills. Do not regularly do this. It’s a very bad idea. It is, however, a better idea than a whole bottle of sleeping pills. 

I blacked out, but not before I turned on my tape recorder. When I woke up, head tilted up toward the ceiling, my tape recorder had been running for almost six hours.

I turned it on and listened.

For the first few minutes I fumbled carelessly with words. I could vaguely recall what I had said during this part. But then began the parts I couldn’t remember. The effect was, in the most literal sense of the word, life-changing.

Just to be clear, again, I’m not advocating for drug abuse as a solution to depression. There is a good chance it can cause serious damage. My circumstances were singular and unique, and I know they’re probably not repeatable. However they are my honest circumstances, and I cannot change them.

I heard my voice change from desperate and lethargic to calm and hopeful. It began, “Ryan, you’re going to know deep down this is true. Right now I’m wasted, but even in this state I’m more sane than you are.”

From there I took the problems I had been facing; questions I had been asking myself for years; paradoxes I had tried to solve in short stories and plays; and one by one I calmly and rationally explained them to myself. “You’re trying so hard to be normal. Doesn’t that seem weird to you? How much do you read? How often do you work? How many of your problems do you face head on and still you can’t get by? Don’t you think maybe there’s a problem and maybe you don’t deserve it?”

I recalled a relationship from a year earlier (or the closest I had gotten to a relationship in a long time). We had gone on a few dates. At times there was a real connection. On the night of the fourth date, she came over to my place and we watched a movie. We started kissing after the movie was over, but then, suddenly, without warning, she stood up and said she had to go. I never heard from her again.

I explained the situation to myself in a way that didn’t end with, “You’re cursed and nobody will ever love you.” The way I was telling it now, I had been unable to feel any of the things she was feeling. My every decision, every movement was wrong, because I was not drawing from the source of hope and passion and, yes, lust, that she was. Most people, somewhere inside, take this connection for granted. I didn’t have it.

I remembered a movie I had written years earlier. I told myself it was really about me; whereas, when I made it, I told everyone including myself that it was some pointless grand philosophical treatise on some meaningless subject or other. It was really about me, alone in my apartment, learning that life scared and alone isn’t worth living, building up the courage to venture out and engage the world on its own terms. Some part of my brain so feared this idea that I was unable to look at it directly, yet still every scene followed that through-line and some part of me knew what I was doing.

I described in beautiful detail the love I felt for the people in my life. I remembered times I had noticed they were sad, but didn’t know what to do. I remembered things they said–how clearly they wanted me to give them some part of myself–how I had been totally unable to do that.

Nothing I was saying sounded ridiculous. All of it rang true. Somewhere inside me was this smart, loving, hopeful person. He was drowning, but he wasn’t dead yet. And it wasn’t all his fault.

I continued like this for six hours, eventually reaching this conclusion: “Deep down you know something is wrong, but you won’t trust your intuition. You fight so hard to convince people you’re okay, but have you ever once really believed you wanted to succeed? It’s okay to want to get better. It’s okay to take care of yourself for a while until you do.

My studio apartment felt more silent than it had since I moved in. I was held in rapt attention, hanging on every world like I hadn’t in half a decade. Instead of the massive hangover I had expected, I felt an inner peace like one I hadn’t known since childhood. I felt like I had just awakened from a bad dream.

Part 4 — Getting Better

I swear this next part is true. It’s the truest thing I have ever experienced. If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t believe it was possible. I wouldn’t have believed anyone else if they said they had experienced it.

Something was different. It was very, very different. I knew this alone in my apartment. I knew it when I walked outside. I knew it talking to a coworker in the parking lot. A weight had been lifted. Listening to a song before bed, I felt my emotions rise and fall with the music. It was so beautiful I cried (stark sober this time). I hadn’t really heard music in years. My attention was now able to engage what I looked at without attaching the echoes of myriad embarrassments and failures long forgotten, without being weighed down by a sluggish spirit that just couldn’t be bothered.

Over the next few weeks I felt an explosion of motivation without any anxiety. I cleaned my car and apartment. I returned library books that were years overdue. I got back in touch with friends and family. I started filling out applications for grad school. I had an out of body experience reading Walt Whitman aloud. My mind naturally and effortlessly attached itself to ideas and plans and the entire universe had never before seemed so fascinating, so full of promise.

When speaking to people, I found myself listening and wondering what they needed, rather than desperately wondering what they wanted from me. I started writing again, for the first time in ages, and it was easily the best work I had ever done. I had been manic before, but this was different. Mania is selfish. You are powered by irrational desires that develop internally. This was a heightened awareness, an engagement with the world based on feeling. I was connected to everyone and everything in ways I had never been aware of before. Something happened, and then I felt it. Now I could mourn with those who mourned, rejoice with those who rejoiced. It felt like the most incredible thing in the world.

All the things I learned in school, all the reading I had done, all the observations I had made around other people as an adult were suddenly accessible. I felt a deep intuition that guided me to a stronger connection with those who, just a week earlier, I thought I might never see again. As many friends and family members commented, I was like a new person.

From  a distance, I could also see the wreckage of my past life. How foreign and alien my languishing thoughts seemed in the cold light of day. I wondered how I could ever have fallen into that trap and promised myself there was no going back.

With my newfound awareness, I also began scheduling appointments with a therapist. I wasn’t so delusional to think I would never need help again. I applied for new jobs, realizing I had no intention of spending my whole life as a security guard. Filling out job applications (much like doing the dishes and the laundry, going to the bank, talking on the phone) suddenly seemed easy. Everything that had defined my life for almost a decade felt like a cruel joke.

For the first few days all I felt was an intense sense of relief. Then I began remembering events from the past few years–relationships, achievements, even books and poems I had read. I was flooded with a warm sense of connection to the world. So much good and beauty was filling up the spaces fear and hopelessness had once occupied.

Most importantly, I no longer hated myself. I could see I was always working to become this person, that this person wanted to help people, wanted to carry his own weight in the world, and expended an abnormal amount of effort to get there.

After a couple meetings with my therapist, she said she believed about 80% of people with my severity of depression who go untreated are homeless. I started crying.

Part 5 — Glory Fades

The next month was the happiest of my life. Nothing exceptional happened. I felt wind and sun, read poetry (I realized that I hadn’t really understood poetry until that very moment). I came up with a dozen great ideas for new writing projects. I thought of half a dozen subjects I wanted to study. The fascination I once felt, had feigned in absence, had returned; and, because I never once abandoned it, even in the absence of all feeling, I was able to pick up right where I left off. I started a book club with my brother and sister, and made plans to just meet up and talk with my estranged friends.

Selectively, when the moment was right, I told people my story. In many cases they looked relieved, as though they had been worried about me and I was saying something they had wanted to hear for a long time. I felt loved and cared for in ways I had never before been capable of feeling.

The anxiety was the first thing to return.

I was having a conversation with my family after my brother’s graduation. There was nothing particularly notable about the conversation. We weren’t fighting. But that irrational fear that had clouded my every conversation since I was a child flickered for a moment.

I knew it distinctly. And because I had hoped it would be gone forever, I panicked. I asked to leave, walked outside to get some fresh air, and repeated a few of the strategies my therapist had taught me. I tried square breathing, creating a personal history, meditation, then ultimately locked myself in my brother’s room and read a book.

The episode passed.

A few days later it returned again. When I was at my worst in years past, I would fear calling someone I had known for eight years by their name, wondering if I was on a first name basis with them or whether I might get the name wrong, even if they were my best friend. Almost anything anyone could worry about in any circumstance, I worried about in every circumstance. And since my epiphany, I knew that those people had tried to care about me, but every time they looked into my eyes they saw I was still treating them like a stranger. I was neurologically incapable of familiarity–a black hole that desperately sucked the warmth from others, giving none back, not even keeping any for itself.

I promised myself I couldn’t return to this. I felt that, whatever control I had, I would fight with all my strength never to go back to where I was. I called my therapist’s office phone and left a voicemail. “I need to see you as soon as possible. When can I schedule another appointment?”

I wasn’t going back. I couldn’t.

Slowly I went back.

The book club I had started with my brother and sister, for which I had planned a dozen activities, began to feel like an exhausting and impossible task. I would spend all day reading, but the ideas that had flocked to my brain so easily were all gone. Every word now had some weight attached. Without even realizing, I would forget about it for two weeks at a time.

Things went on like this for a while. I kept doing all the things I had done while I felt well, but they were growing harder, less natural, and I felt like I was getting nowhere.

Then one Sunday evening I was driving, and suddenly, without any forethought, I shouted, “FUCK!” and started punching myself in a violent fit of anger. I pulled off to the side of the road, hands shaking, face beet red and sweating.

This new depression wasn’t like the last one. I didn’t feel lifeless. I felt angry and troubled.  My helplessness was now twinged with fierce desperation and a knowledge of all I had to lose. While feeling anything seemed like an improvement, it made it harder to cope with the life I had managed to sustain during my last bout. I called off work one night because my head was racing so fast I couldn’t sleep, and I was making myself throw up. At work I would experience violent fits of anger–alternately, sometimes I had to take a break to go hide in the parking garage one building over and cry for fifteen minutes.

After nearly two months in paradise, I felt like I was on the return trip to hell. This fear and frustration gripped me and I started lashing out with any emotion I could hold onto. One day I would feel an almost uncontrollable rage, the next I could feel nothing at all. My therapist made an appointment for me to meet with a psychiatrist to get me on new prescriptions that could help with my symptoms, but the nearest available appointment was a month away and I could feel my hold on reality slipping.

By the time the appointment came, no remnant of that old inner peace remained. I had taken up reading, meditation, exercise, and better nutrition as coping mechanisms, but even these felt completely powerless to deal with the weight that was, daily, piling onto my every thought. I had learned to trust my intuition before. Now my intuition was screaming “Abandon ship!”

Part 6 — Triumphant

“i simply stopped
writing of truth
when my truths
no longer sounded
trimphant”
– Saul Williams

I am sitting in front of a computer screen. The words just barely hold my attention. Not every sentence is a winner, nor is it attached to an emotion, that way the best writers are able to accomplish. My sentence structures are much simpler and less revealing than my writing was a few years ago–than it was two months ago. In some ways the very act of writing makes me feel like a cripple, because I wind up comparing myself to the relative wellness of the past.

Still, I want to speak and words form in my head. I cannot remember the sheer hopelessness that crippled me not three months ago. I have not fallen that far.

I take my daily regimen of pills and feel some small improvement. My apartment is still clean, within reason. My car is also clean, within reason. I hung out with people last night and had a decent time, even if for long stretches of the night I felt nothing.

The other day I auditioned for a play. My leg shook so uncontrollably that twice I almost fell over. However, I held a conversation with the director that I couldn’t have managed last year. They were considering me for a small role in the ensemble. That had never happened before. Ultimately they went another direction, but they think my odds are good if I try again next time.

Yesterday the pills didn’t work. I paced anxiously, trying breathing and meditation. After six hours of effort I still hadn’t calmed down.

I went for a drive. I tried to focus on the warn sun against my skin, the cool breeze through the window gliding across my cheek. Still everything was racing and empty.

I grabbed a seat at a coffee shop, outside on the patio. While sipping a drink, I read some poetry. I heard a few lines in my head. They felt honest. I wrote them down, and continued. The overall poem was terrible, but the two lines were very good. When finished, I felt calmer, if not perfect. I was able to sleep that night.

Today I am not better, but I know what better looks like. I know it’s something I’m capable of. I know if I keep fighting I will get there someday. I know I really like the person waiting for me when I get there. I know people need him–there are things he can do in this world to help others and be necessary.

At my last session my therapist said, “Your goals are reasonable, but sometimes your timetable isn’t.”

She also looked me in the eyes and said, “I promise you will get better.”

If only one thing changed since February, it was still a big one: now I believe her.

finding dory 1

In his short story collection, “Twice-Told Tales,” Nathaniel Hawthorne brilliantly revisited the ancient myth of Theseus and the labyrinth. For those unfamiliar with this tale (which should apply to at least half the audience of a Pixar film in 2016) Theseus was a Greek hero imprisoned by Minos, the King of Crete, in an impossibly complex maze from which nobody had ever escaped. Fortunately, Theseus had won the love of Minos’ daughter Ariadne. The young princess gave her lover the keys to navigate the gordian passages and emerge on the other side unscathed.

Like many writers of his time, Hawthorne was obsessed with finding modern significance in older stories. His take on history’s first great prison break updated the material for an audience that was beginning to struggle with concepts of individuality and mental health that were foreign to the ancient world. In the reheated version, the labyrinth is not merely physically complex. It has a magical effect on its captives, blinding them to reality and imprinting untold anxieties and invisible rules on their brains until eventually they went insane. This will be familiar to anyone who has ever walked downtown in a large city during rush hour.

In this version of the story, Ariadne didn’t simply hand Theseus a map. She also gave him a long thread, holding the other end herself. Every few minutes she would tug on this thread, and Theseus–whose mind was constantly wandering and threatening to give up–would remember his lover and his mission and continue soldiering on. It’s an elegant metaphor for the way love serves as a compass in a modern world where a person’s greatest enemies are often the voices inside their own head.

finding dory 5

Pixar, America’s last bastion of innocence, has also been revisiting their twice-told tales recently. When they were trailblazing outsiders, John Lasseter’s brain trust dismissed the idea of (non-Toy Story) sequels as pointless cash grabs and exploitation of audiences’ desire for familiarity. Now in their third decade and decidedly “the establishment,” the world’s most popular animation studio has eased up on that rule. The results have been uneven, ranging from classic (Toy Story 3) to acceptable (Monsters University) to “sign of the apocalypse”-level terrible (Cars 2) with Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 rumored to be on the way.

Finding Dory fits easily in the Classic camp. It might even be the best sequel Pixar has ever produced (which you will know, if you’ve seen Toy Story 2, is a very, very tall order). This time the protagonist is Dory, the memory-deficient blue tang who played sidekick to clownfish Marlin in Finding Nemo. I’ll admit that the idea of structuring a whole film around a one-joke comic relief character sounds like a bad idea. Fortunately, director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) remembers the inherent sadness in the character that audiences from 13 years ago may have forgotten.

Marlin’s cross-ocean odyssey (more Greek stuff, one might observe) was lined with brutality and sadness just subtle enough to sneak past younger viewers. Dory was one of billions of fish alone with a disease and no way to help herself, like a dolphin with a plastic can holder wrapped around its nose. Her mental illness was great for getting the kids to laugh, but the character voiced by Ellen DeGeneres always had a whole lot more going on. If you revisit the movie before seeing its sequel, you may remember how heartbreaking it is when Dory begs Marlin not to leave her in his despair because she doesn’t want to forget anymore.

Finding Dory 3

So now, thanks to Pixar’s absolute refusal to coddle their youngest viewers, we get to see a wide-eyed (like, excessively wide-eyed, even for an animated baby fish in a children’s film), optimistic child version of Dory torn away from her family and lost in a vast, unsympathetic ocean. Hey kids, here’s what growing up actually feels like. Good luck.

Thankfully (because I don’t think I could have handled much more of that lost child thing without completely losing it) Dory has found a slightly happier place when the story actually kicks in. She now lives next door to Marlin and Nemo and is accepted (though begrudgingly) as part of their community. Her memory problems are still an issue. She wakes up her neighbors over and over in the middle of the night and distracts the children of Nemo’s school. Likewise, her call to adventure isn’t quite as desperate as Marlin’s attempts to save his one surviving child. Instead, she remembers her original mission of trying to find her parents, along with some idea of where they might be.

The target audience of Finding Nemo was adults (particularly young parents) in 2003. Marlin was a widower trying to protect his only child in a world becoming scarier and less predictable every day. He needed to learn to trust and explore again and do away with old prejudices about outsiders. Dory has more in common with the young adults of 2016. She is single, unmarried (we’re still left guessing about what her relationship with Marlin actually entails) and plagued by problems of a vaguer, more psychological bent. The world is telling her to simply fit in and make peace with the way things are. “The only reason to travel across the ocean is so you never have to do it again,” Marlin insists.

Finding Dory 2

But Dory is better at trusting her instincts because they’re all she has to rely on; and those instincts tell her there are answers somewhere out there if she only looks hard enough. At the end of this journey is not some great extroverted trek across the world but a manic heist inside an Oceanographic Institute that essentially amounts to fish therapy. Yes, fellow Millennials, Pixar is still making movies exclusively for us. Aren’t we special?

Along the way, Dory learns to trust her instincts and embrace her positive qualities. Children will see this as yet another story about “believing in yourself,” but to an older, more jaded audience, there’s some pretty loaded subtext. All of a sudden I’m wondering if Dory’s plight has always been a metaphor for the way the internet has stunted the memory of children of the nineties and made self-discipline far more difficult, while also preserving their sense of whimsy, intuition, and optimism far longer than their parents.

This is also where the labyrinth comes back into play. In her quest for home, Dory keeps recalling stray memories from her past and messages her parents imparted before she lost them. Her approach seems insane compared to Marlin’s pragmatism, but in the end it’s the only way to navigate a problem far more complicated than (if nowhere near as dramatic as) finding one child.

Dory also quickly realizes that many other animals have their own quirky, impossible problems. There is a seven-legged octopus (or septopus, as Dory calls him) so afraid of being released into the ocean that he’s trying to hitch a ride to a Cleveland aquarium instead. There are sea lions who obsess over their status napping on a single rock. There is a blank-eyed bird that can only hear someone if they look it in the eyes and mimick its call several times. Two of Dory’s childhood friends include a nearsighted whale shark and a beluga whale whose sonar is blocked.

finding dory 4

The voice of Sigourney Weaver frequently reminds visitors that the goal of the Institute is rehabilitation, then release. However the reality of their treatment and display for callous audiences is far more Darwinian. Some animals deemed beyond help eventually become fodder for aquariums and petting pools. These creatures seem lost in their own personal labyrinths, and many of them need the kind of openness and optimism that comes very naturally to Dory. Just like Dory’s friends serve as her connecting thread when she’s facing her darkest fears (that would be following simple directions like “take two lefts”), a self-reliant Dory is equipped to serve as their anchor as well.

One of the reasons Pixar remains a force in the movie world, not just financially but also artistically, is their insistence on viewing their movies as a conversation with a specific audience. The young children who first watched Toy Story are the same ones who were teenagers when Finding Nemo came out, college students when Toy Story 3 came out, and now adults in 2016. Their movies continue to address this original audience and reassure them that those timeless lessons about love and, yes, believing in yourself, still apply even when you’re approaching 30.

Their message to the Marlins of the world: learn to see these internal struggles as a fight for the same sense of home and connectedness you feel for your children. Their lesson to the Dories of the world: keep trusting your instincts and fighting the battles you need to fight, no matter how many op-eds call you selfish and entitled. The lessons your parents imparted to make you self-reliant still apply, even if the context has gotten muddy. The world needs you, not someone else’s idea of you, whether they care to admit it or not.

In other words, just keep swimming.

Rating: 9.5/10

Poems

05/11/2016

EVIDENCE

Someone always throws the first punch
But not always the one standing at the end
I search for your hair on my pillow
Like I’m excavating a crime scene
I make a chalk outline where you left an impression
And cone off half the bed
I put your toothbrush and a stray hairband in plastic bags
Marked evidence
I tell myself tomorrow I will identify the guilty party
Then I tape off the whole bedroom
And sleep on the couch

CREATION

In the beginning, God Created the Heavens and the Earth.
Well, not really the beginning.
First He thought about it for a good long while
Eternity, in fact
But being God, He had that kind of Time
So eventually He decided to go for it
And God said let there be Light
And He saw that the Light was good
But was it, really?
Blinding and everywhere
It certainly sold the majesty and glory
But it was also a bit hyperbolic
So God cooled it down with Darkness
Which wasn’t so bad
It certainly balanced out the Light
But the Darkness was just so maudlin
Now every Light sat by itself, silhouetted against a black abyss
God decided to sleep on it
So there was evening and morning, the first day
On the second day
1:45 PM, to be exact
God stopped hitting snooze on His alarm
And looked back at the universe
It needs more contrast, He observed
So God thought about what other contrasts He could work in
He needed something that wasn’t too much like Light and Darkness
Around 5:00 PM He had worked Himself into a frenzy
He was pacing
Muttering to Himself
What was He so worried about?
He was the only One watching
Why bother hesitating?
He could just start over if it sucked.
I’m God, He told Himself
Yeah, I Am!
I’ve got infinite power
In fact, nothing that’s made would be made
If I didn’t make it
Whatever I make should be grateful I made it
Bitch
And He clenched his stomach and shouted out
Sky and Water
And He felt better once he’d done it
He opened his eyes
And He really liked Sky
Water had its good points too
They certainly weren’t like Light and Darkness
He decided He would keep them
Now He was getting somewhere
He rewarded Himself by taking the rest of the night off
But now God couldn’t take His mind off the whole project
So He lay awake all night
And eventually decided that Sky and Water weren’t exactly opposites
Not the way Light and Darkness were
He considered something else–Matter and Antimatter?
[He wrote both words in a notebook]
No, He thought, He had committed to Sky and Water
He had to make them work
So He decided to try a third contrast
And before the third day was out, He came up with Land
[He also snuck in Antimatter, but thought it would be better as subtext and didn’t tell anyone about it]
He decided it was perfect
He was excited to enjoy it
He sat on the Land
He stuck His feet in the Water
He looked at the Sky
In Light and in Darkness
He told Himself it was good
And He went to bed
But honestly, it was boring
That was obvious in the cold Light of the fourth day
There was no risk here
It totally lacked in drama
It was nap music
He thought that was good?
He couldn’t trust His instincts
Maybe He should start over?
No, He thought, I need to get better at finishing things
Eternity behind Me and I’ve made exactly one thing
He got the idea for Plants and vegetation in a dream during a depression nap
He was so excited
He spent the whole afternoon painting on every little blade of grass
And He went right through midnight
And as morning came on day five, He was burnt out
I spent all afternoon drawing little green lines in the ground
And what did it really do?
Who did it really benefit?
I need something more intimate
So God got Himself some Fish
And He prepped their habitats
And made special Plants for them to feed on
And occasionally He would make bubbles float around them to see them swim away
He spent a whole day procrastinating like this
He told Himself it was good for His soul
But day six came around and He felt guilty
He needed to see it through
To take this to its logical conclusion
Until You risk going too far, You never know how far You can go
So God decided to test the whole Fish situation on Land
As a thought exercise
He called them Animals
He decided He liked them best of everything He had done so far
Just thinking about the Platypus made him chuckle til he did the snort thing
He did the same thing with the Sky right away
Throwing out birds and bats and pterodactyls and shit like it was nothing
I need to remember this, God told Himself
This is what happens when I discipline My instincts
I have to learn to enjoy hard work
For an Almighty Being, I have been floating around in nothingness far too long
Creation is friction
It’s the course I set myself on
I can never go back
And so God decided that He would brainstorm one last best idea before He went to bed that night
And He thought and thought and thought
He wouldn’t let Himself sleep until He had it
He was setting His foot down
And eventually it came to Him
I could make something in My own image!
Enough random creation!
This matter is just an obfuscation!
I’ve been avoiding Self-expression!
And so God explored His own nature
His own habits
His own hopes and desires
And decided He would Plant them all
Into the most honest, powerful work He had ever released
He imagined the rave reviews now
And decided to create panels of Cherubim and Seraphim
Just to praise the release
He checked on all His favorite Water/Sky/Land areas
Like Yosemite
And New Zealand
Making sure the Light was just right
And then it hit Him
Fuck
He was going to have to show this to an audience
He was sure they would like it
Probably
He thought about what they would see
On the one hand, there was sex and music
On the other hand, there was cancer and artificial peach flavoring
He decided He would take the seventh day off
Just to be sure.

Most of us are aware on some level that we walk in two worlds. There is the pragmatic world–school, work, putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads. Then there is the spiritual world. It doesn’t matter if you think of that literally or metaphorically. There are primal forces coursing through all of us that have nothing to do with how well we function in modern society. We are wired to survive in jungles, escape predators, and overcome fears that have nothing to do with sitting in a cubicle listening to Drake on Spotify.

From the broadest possible perspective, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a TV show about this disconnect. The very title evokes the kind of kitsch absurdity our emotional needs can sometimes appear to be. How many of us blush when we retrace a heated train of thought in the light of day? We want to be stable, constructive, serious people, and yet every night we encounter something that makes almost no sense in that context. This is the leap the original producers of Joss Whedon’s Buffy screenplay failed to capture. “How,” they asked, “could the story of a teenage girl named Buffy who kills vampires possibly be taken seriously.”

It’s not hard to see the TV show as his decisive, hundred hour reply.

We get jealous because our best friend is happy. We catch ourselves in the middle of an hour-long rant to our imaginary boss. We daydream about being rich and famous even when we can’t get up the gumption to take out the garbage. We get nostalgic for toys we lost when we were five years old. Our demons are (in most cases, I assume) metaphorical, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Running and hiding do us no good. Repressing often makes it worse. The only option is to confront our emotions and use them to our advantage. It takes an exceptional person to navigate that terrain while keeping their life from falling apart. It takes a slayer.

It’s also possible to view this pop culture behemoth in purely allegorical terms. When we first meet Buffy, she is a sophomore in high school dealing with raw, confusing emotions that seem very much like a horror film. Bullies become hyena people. Online boyfriends turn into internet demons. As Buffy grows older, the story becomes more complex. Her senior year is filled with rituals and fairy tales. Her first year of college is dominated by tales of metamorphosis and transformation. By the time she’s an adult, the demons have come to represent the forces of apathy and ennui. The result remains the same: the slayer faces a demon. The slayer slays it. The slayer remains a slayer.

This is one of the reasons (though definitely not the only one) why Buffy feels like such a personal journey to many of its fans. Take away the demons, the good guys and bad guys, the desperate plots to save the world, and you have the skeleton of a story that’s not unlike one we all go through. Buffy discovers intense emotions as a teenager. She figures out where she fits in this new world of feeling. She falls in love. She loses love. She learns to trust and relate to other people again. She develops opinions on social, political, and religious subjects. Her focus shifts to other people like her mother and her little sister.

And whether it’s a large penis-shaped snake demon or a punk rock vampire, she’s ready to face down her dark foils at every turn. We get to watch as someone navigates the world we remember all too well and behaves like a courageous, decent human being. The writers were not oblivious to how empowering this sort of thing can be.

Another reason why Buffy feels so ahead of its time is Whedon’s pioneering use of the internet. The show doesn’t feel like a mere linear story. It feels like a dialog with the viewer. Other shows like Community feel the same way, and you’ll find they utilize many of the same techniques. Buffy writers frequented the boards of Whedonesque and other fan sites, gathering opinions and expectations offered up by the people who cared most. They didn’t always cater to the fans’ desires, but happiness has never been a staple of Whedon television. Often it feels like characters in his series die just when we are beginning to fall in love with them. That’s not accidental, and it’s not always something you can plan either.

In the same way, the dark fringes of the show’s fandom often work their way onto the screen. The Trio, the misogynist geek villains from season 6, have a lot in common with the twenty-something fanboys who made up Buffy’s core demographic. Here is a show with the same audience breakdown as Star Trek, celebrating the efforts of a harried single mother as she battles three Star Wars-revering manchildren. They’re almost daring the fans to take offense.

But that’s what’s so magic about Buffy. It’s not always saying what I want to hear, but I always feel like it’s speaking directly to me. Television is the patron medium of pandering, the official passtime of people who don’t want to think and parents who want their kids to shut up. Even good shows often tell us what we want to hear, because when you’re home from work you’re tired and you just want to shut off your brain. Buffy cannot be watched passively. It demands we keep slaying, no matter how tired we are. It dares us not to admit this way is better.

So for the next few weeks I am going to be exploring the show season by season, examining its ideas and offering some insight wherever I can. I admit up front this will not be objective. Buffy is my favorite TV show, and it’s a distant race for second. My goal isn’t to convert the curious or preach to the choir. It’s merely to celebrate a novel use of the television medium, and to remind everyone (myself included) that there are demons out there that need slaying and it’s time to get to work.

Season 1

I doubt this will stand up as a legitimate psychological hypothesis, but for the purposes of this essay (and based on my own limited experience with the creative process) let’s say there are two kinds of thought: expressive and labored. Sit down and just begin typing. Don’t think about it. Just type words and force yourself to keep going for five minutes. It may not be the most profound thing you’ve ever put down, but the odds are that you will discover a few things you didn’t realize you knew. That’s expressive thought. It’s pure creation.

Now, imagine you are speaking to a specific audience. They have certain needs. You don’t want to waste their time. Think about what you should write about. Try to imagine how you would word that so it means something to them. Now try to keep all of that in mind, and begin the exercise again.

The blank screen you are probably staring at right now represents labored thought. It’s what happens when you let your Id into the writers room.

Movies tend to be very labored creations. The writer and director have ninety minutes to tell a story, and there’s very little room for mistakes. Television is different. It needs to sustain our interest, hopefully for years. It’s governed by laws that feed this longevity. Each episode is written far more rapidly than would be the case for a similar slot of time in a movie. Often writers are completing drafts days before the actors will be speaking the lines.

So first seasons tend to be the worst of the series. Watch any show from Breaking Bad to the Simpsons, and you’ll find the first episodes plagued by sluggish pacing, dueling priorities, and inconsistent characters. For the millions of dollars being invested, you would expect a major network TV show to be meticulously plotted. That’s not always for the best though. Consider how dry the first season of The Office is, before the writers allowed their characters to breathe outside the confines of what they thought the show needed to be. The looser, less structured product actually turned out to be much better.

Or think about how great the first season of True Detective was, and compare it to the disaster of a second season. When you are telling something like a hundred hours of story, the beginning doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think.

I’m going to return to Community and Dan Harmon here for a second. I will be drawing comparisons between that show and Buffy a lot, because in a lot of ways Community is like John the Baptist to Buffy’s Jesus–making obvious and direct the things its predecessor did covertly.

Harmon talks a lot about organic story development–beginning with a simple premise, one dimensional characters, and common story tropes, then being open to radical change as the series takes shape. Like Whedon and his writers, Harmon’s team stayed in constant dialog with fans. Britta went from manic pixie dream girl to hilarious ne’er-do-well. Troy went from dumb jock to idealistic manchild. The way the fans viewed the series became a springboard for the kind of stories the writers decided to tell.

All of this is to say that the first season of Buffy can occasionally be rough, and on a technical level it’s easily the worst of the series. The dialog is too nineties. The stories often come from cliches about high school rather than lived-in observations. The sexy older teacher turns out to be a praying mantis. When everyone’s nightmares come to life, Giles dreams about Buffy dying, Willow dreams about public speaking, and Xander dreams about being chased by a clown. At its best, it’s clever. At its worst, it’s pedantic.

But for the already-converted, the first season of Buffy is a fascinating look at what might have been. Those abortive first attempts include the scariest episode the series ever produced (The Pack), one of the strangest episodes of television I have ever seen (Puppet Show), and a handful of truly great standalone Monster of the Week episodes that do the show’s predecessors (like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Moonlighting) proud.

Whedon-penned Angel is the first episode that truly feels like the final Buffy product, beginning to end. It’s followed by the manic energy of Nightmares, a great look at loneliness with Out of Sight, Out of Mind, and Prophecy Girl, the damn-near-perfect finale that leaves no doubt this show is headed for great things.

It’s worth noting that season 1 is the sole Buffy season without any market testing. Faced with a much lower budget and faster deadlines, the Buffy team wrote, shot, and edited the entire first season before fans had even seen the premiere. The final product amounts to their best first guess. With that and the alternative blank screen in mind, it could be a lot worse.

Episodes 1 and 2 — Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest

It’s your first day at a new school. Things didn’t go so well in the last town, so you’re focused on making a new start. You keep your head down in class. The popular girls want to hang out with you. A new start; a normal life; you just might be able to pull it off.

But soon enough some British librarian is asking you to continue your battle against the forces of evil, and the fate of the world is in the balance. And your allies in this battle aren’t so much the A-list as a girl so shy she can’t sustain a conversation and a dorky pop culture aficionado who has a major crush on you.

Giles isn’t alone in his premiere-closing observation, “The Earth is doomed.” At the risk of getting all big-picturey, the teens of generation X weren’t exactly considered a cultural point of pride. Raised on Saturday morning cartoons, video games, boy bands, and porn, these youths, and the idea they were destined to inherit the world, unsettled many people who were a lot less uptight than Giles.

Again, I won’t argue that the first two episodes of this series are great. Clearly the whole crew was still getting their act together. The fight scenes in particular border on being unwatchable. But emotionally, this is the right foot to start on. One need only peruse a few back issues of The New York Times to see apocalyptic prophecies about Gen X that make the current Millennial backlash seem quaint. The first episode of Buffy took every teenage girl discovering the world can be a hostile place for young women, every boy who passed over his textbooks to read Spider-Man comics, every shy outcast lost in the burgeoning horizon of the worldwide web, and gave them a chance to fight and kill the ancient laws that declared they didn’t stand a chance.

And we can roll our eyes at how much The Master looks like a Power Rangers villain or how dated the pop culture references are, but still the most important quality of the entire series is apparent to those who look: we are rooting with Buffy, Willow, and Xander, because they are us. They are the attention-deficient, desensitized, undereducated problem children of a broken world, but they can still save that world the way people have done for generations.

Episode 3 — Witch

The one-word title of Buffy’s first true-blue monster of the week episode is a loaded one. Think of the first thing that comes to mind when a person says “witch.” Now think about how many of those kneejerk reactions are gross female stereotypes exaggerated into a monstrous, zeitgeist-baiting form. Buffy the slayer might have to fight a witch, but Buffy the show is clearly fighting the idea of what it means to be a witch.  

Joss Whedon and his writers specialize in feminism, but in keeping with the premiere, the allegorical demon is actually age discrimination. Someone is using black magic to sabotage cheerleading tryouts. Buffy and the gang narrow the suspects down to gothic outsider, Amy. Even Buffy, despite her own struggles with identity, is quick to blame the teenage girl. The narrative paints an easy enough picture. Amy isn’t all that talented, and she doesn’t have the work ethic of the best cheerleaders. She uses dark magic to get ahead, hurting whoever she must to achieve validation she never earned.

Only that’s not quite the actual situation. Amy is only trying out for cheerleader because her mother has possessed her body and is living her own dreams through her daughter, less vicariously than literally. Amy is merely a victim of others’ expectations. It’s not the pinnacle of sophisticated storytelling, but Witch is a smart, focused look at the kinds of judgments being hurled at young people (especially teenage girls) and why those judgments are lies.

Episode 4 — Teacher’s Pet

There’s a running joke throughout the whole series about how Xander is attracted to demons. I expect an existentialist like Joss Whedon would make some comment on how men tend to be more likely to look for some kind of imagined idealization in their potential partner, while women focus more on the actual person.

And that kind of commentary does work its way into the episode. Xander admits that he watches a lot of porn, and later he blushes at the revelation that he is still a virgin.These moments feel like lived-in confessions about the confused chaos of young male sexuality. However by the standard of later Buffy metaphors, Praying Mantis Teacher is pretty uninspiring.

While Witch actually required the characters to overcome their prejudice, Xander is never actually confronted by the empty female avatars he sees in the pages of Hustler. He pursues an empty projection of his lust. He is attacked by a giant insect. It might work for Pavlov’s dog, but it really doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

Episode 5 — Never Kill a Boy on the First Date

This episode feels like something a rookie writer would shout during the first pitch meeting. “So Buffy is on a date with a boy, but she also has to slay vampires and she has to hide her secret identity the whole time!”

Owen is the most confused of all the boys Buffy ever dated. He’s shy. He’s a little doughy to be the hunk everyone claims he is. He reads Emily Dickinson, and we all know everyone who did that in high school was super cool.

I mean I get it. Buffy has some complexity, so her dream guy probably would too. But Owen feels too much like some writer’s ideal boyfriend, as opposed to Buffy’s dream guy. As a result the whole thing turns to farce really fast, and not, as Xander might hope, the “fun, bawdy French kind.”

Episode 6 — The Pack

The Pack is the most frightened I have ever been that a network TV show was going to murder a baby on-screen. That’s the kind of darkness you earn. This episode isn’t exactly nuanced, but good lord is it effective. The bullies get their kicks from saying the meanest, most hurtful things they can to whoever will listen. And we get to watch them eat the adorable pig mascot, cannibalize the even more adorable Principal Flutie, and terrorize the entire campus.

Two things are undoubtedly communicated here: first, there’s an inherent appeal to doing the worst possible thing. We can tell because we enjoy watching, even if we want to look away. Xander says the most hurtful thing he possibly could to a vulnerable, lovestruck Willow. And we also get to feel just how intimidating the gaze of someone who wants to hurt us can be. For a show that had 144 episodes with a monster in all of them, the scariest villain they ever concocted was a teenage boy leering down at his female victim. It’s hard to tell women they are exaggerating once you’ve seen that.

Episode 7 — Angel

So let’s get into the genius of Angel for a second. The character doesn’t always work, I realize, but in the world of Buffy he is a revelation. Buffy represents the heart of a hero in the body of someone society tends to underestimate. Angel represents the opposite. On the surface Angel is the perfect person. He’s beautiful, brooding, and always around to help when evil strikes. That’s why Buffy is so surprised when he turns out to be a demon at the core.

Eventually Angel would become Buffy’s series-mate, and the larger ideas of her series would be highlighted by his contrast. Buffy is the story of a young woman learning to trust her instincts when the rest of the world is telling her who she can or cannot be. Angel is about a man who realizes he is evil at the core–that his moment of pure happiness is causing pain for others–learning to embrace his anxieties to make himself a good person even if he will never naturally want that. In Freudian terms, Buffy is a pure Id learning to reject her ego. Angel is a corrupted Id learning to develop his ego.

One could extrapolate too much on this. I don’t think Whedon is saying all men are evil and all women are inherently good. I think he’s looking at patterns. To this day men are given free reign in society. Yet the stories told about them still tell them to pursue their own freedom at all costs. Meanwhile so many doors are closed to women, yet our narrative art remains maddeningly apathetic about their need for heroic avatars. The journey faced by women today is far more fitting for stories about heroes who ]learn to trust their instincts. It’s not about absolutes.

But like Whedon loves saying, he writes strong female characters, “because we’re still asking why.” Until the scales are even, Angel will always be the masculine arc, Buffy always the feminine, opposed and attracted at once.

Episode 8 — I, Robot… You, Jane

It’s easy to dismiss something that just doesn’t work and not to pay attention to what the writers were trying to do. I honestly think they tried with this episode. Unlike the other prejudices Buffy encounters in her first season, the role of technology in society was still very much a hot button issue in 1997. Unlike sexism or bullying, it wasn’t something with a clear right and wrong. Technology was eating away at the natural enjoyment of life. We are living in a kind of dystopian realization of that fact now. Its march was also inevitable.

This is a Willow episode–she, after all, is Jane to the Demon Robot–but it’s also a Giles episode. From the first episode Giles served a distinct function in Buffy’s world. He is an old British man because they are the most likely people to read heroic epics. He is the archetype of all that judges the modern day by an ancient standard. Of all the characters on the show, he is the one who would not actually watch a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer because he considers pop culture to be inherently disposable garbage that doesn’t challenge in the way fine literature does.

And while he might be underestimating the value of X-Men comics, Giles isn’t exactly wrong about computers. They did make us a less connected society. Many people operate the web in a healthy way. Many have also lost themselves. The show tries to address both sides, but they’re just not ready to tackle such a weighty topic yet. When Giles goes on his rant about how books have texture and smell, the writers (most of whom grew up in a pre-internet world) have no adequate response to give to Willow or techno-pagan Jenny Calendar. So what later seasons could maybe have pulled off as a nuanced discussion of technology in the modern world, turns into a one-dimensional “very special episode” about how online dating can kill you.

Episode 9 — The Puppet Show

I’m about to defend The Puppet Show, while admitting I’m very glad there is not another Buffy episode like it. Yes, the show achieved this kind of manic craziness later without needing to jump off the conceptual deep end. Yes, it’s an episode in which Buffy helps a ventriloquist dummy who is really a horny demon hunter from the forties, defeat a strange alien creature disguised as a teenager who is looking to kill the puppet’s supposed owner, another teenager who has cancer. Also apparently Giles is judging the talent show and Buffy, Xander, and Willow have to perform a scene from Oedipus.

But if a person dreamed a Buffy episode, it would probably look a lot like this. The elements that make the show coherent are amplified here more than in the focused, more intelligent episodes. You’ve got the burgeoning camraderie of Buffy, Xander, and Willow, the playful relationship Giles has with his teenage counterparts, the absurd Scooby action amplified for maximum absurdity. There’s a point I will raise later in season 3, about how every great show eventually becomes a parody of itself because the most powerful joke is an inside joke. This is the first time Buffy the series views itself as an inside joke. It’s not consistent, but also there’s Willow running off stage to throw up in the middle of an Oedipus monologue.

So you lose some, you win some.

Episode 10 — Nightmares

I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m going to draw another comparison to Community. Nightmares has a lot in common with that show’s signature episode, Modern Warfare. It’s not revered by fans in the same way, nor is it nearly as good an episode of television. However this does have one very important thing in common with that paintball action movie pastiche: both episodes represent the moment their shows destroyed all their boundaries.

Dan Harmon likes to talk about how Modern Warfare was the first moment he saw Community as a show he loved as well as worked on. By making their show a parody of the tropes of other media, Community established that they could go anywhere and do anything that captured their imagination. Nightmares does something similar. It’s the first instance of Buffy’s writers embracing their “emotions as magic” motif and letting it wreak havoc on the world they constructed.

The magic here is nightmares. Everyone has them. And by episode 10, fans had a chance to identify with the characters and see how they constructed their world. The nightmares aren’t all that unique (as I mentioned earlier) but still there’s a thrill to seeing Buffy, Giles, et al face the same problem. And when the writers got the chance to keep what worked in season 2, they kept returning to the outline of this episode. Just like Modern Warfare bore classics like Dungeons and Dragons and Critical Film Studies in its DNA, Nightmares similarly foreshadows Buffy classics like Hush, Once More with Feeling, and even The Body. We take an emotion or type of magic. We then insert this eidolon into the lives of all the characters and see how they respond. How would all the characters behave if their darkest secrets came out in Broadway-style musical numbers? How would they act if none of them could speak? How would they react to a real-world death?

It’s the moment a show goes from telling the audience something to asking, “What if?” alongside everyone else. That’s the moment a story becomes capable of anything.

Episode 11 — Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Along with The Pack, this is one of the episodes that defines Buffy’s first season as its own valuable entity. Both stories are very rough in places, but they also show the careless cruelty and psychological confusion of high school life in ways later seasons shied away from. Here a girl named Marcy is ignored so much she turns invisible. She uses her newfound curse/power to haunt Cordelia, the most popular girl in the school.

The turning point comes when Marcy finally gets Cordelia tied up in a chair. A lot of high school shows, especially in the nineties, glorified the loners and ragged on the oppressive bourgeois class. Buffy took it one step farther. Marcy gets the chance to pursue her bitterness. She gets her supposed enemy tied up. But then what? By taking jealousy to its natural conclusion, the show begs the question: what’s the point of going down that path in the first place? What are we glorifying when we mindlessly attack those we perceive as more loved or valued than we are? Are we really willing to follow that to its natural conclusion.

That’s something you can say out loud. Or you can watch the knife rub back and forth across Cordelia’s face as Marcy prepares to push her pain on another person.

Sidenote: this is also the first episode where Cordelia makes sense as a character.

Episode 12 — Prophecy Girl

What does it mean to die metaphorically? Writers, especially screenwriters, love to cite big story charts with Joseph Campbell’s name plastered all over, in which a hero journeys into the unknown, faces death, and emerges with newfound strength and wisdom. Every story, they will tell you, is really about death.

That’s all nice and poetic, but what does it really mean? To end its first season, Buffy explores the meaning of heroism and does its best to elaborate on why all this pseudo-intellectual, metaphysical psycho-babble actually matters. The episode begins with Buffy being told she is going to die. Unlike other prophecies and negative preconceptions, this one is absolutely, for sure going to come true.

Later Buffy finales would deal more specifically with the real challenges of being a teenager. She would fight against the dark side of love, the abuse of authority, threats against her family and her way of life. But to end its first season, Buffy has to bring everything full circle. Buffy has earned the respect of her British Harold Bloom avatar. She has forged her own path in the social darwinism of high school. She defeated her foes and looked good doing it. But now she must prove that she can face the oldest, most powerful force in human life. Like Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf, Henry V, and Neo before her, she must pass through the threshold of certain death.

Understandably she has her reservations. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t be necessary for a happy, healthy life. And looking at her face, even Giles can’t help but agree. But this is where the genius of Buffy comes in. Anyone with a $30 Barnes and Noble gift card can learn all about how to write stories about life and death. But it takes real talent to identify where we face similar thresholds in our everyday lives. Xander knows Buffy will reject him, but he asks her out anyway. Willow loves Xander, but she chooses not to be his backup because she knows it will make her miserable.

And ultimately a similar ordinary life story inspires Buffy to face down the dark lord of the vampires and save the world. Joyce gets her best moment of the series in which she’s not a dead body, recounting a night she went stag to a dance and wound up meeting Buffy’s father. In the midst of certain failure, she found her victory. So Buffy puts on her best dress, grabs her crossbow, and walks through death to save the world.

And the definitive touch is just how absurd it all seems. The Master kills Buffy. Xander revives her. She wakes up with a newfound confidence and kicks ass. There’s no real reason to this change. Honestly, it’s impossible to explain logically. Why does it work that way? Why must we pass through our greatest fears, our most certain failures, in order to find happiness? Aliens in the audience might find it the ultimate kind of farce. You only know it’s true if you’ve experienced it before, which every human being has the potential to do.

Hey people,

Sorry for the lack of activity the last couple weeks. I know I kind of dumped a new Facebook group on your mat, rang the doorbell, and ran off. I promise I was sufficiently miserable to justify this. I won’t go into details, but I’m going to need all your phone numbers again, and you probably won’t recognize my car when I see you next.

Anyway, at long last here’s an event to tide you over.

Another Play Reading!

Saturday, February 27 at 6:00 PM.

Once again I’m inviting you all to come in and read The Two Noble Kinsmen. For those who attended the last reading, this one is going to be a little different. For one, there will be plates. The paper towels will not be poisoned.  Also booze.

More substantially, we’re going to talk about the play with a little more focus. I’m going to have a list of questions for you all to consider before the reading begins. I’m also asking that everyone have some idea about their character beforehand as well. I don’t need you to read the play, but if you’re attending, you should at least talk to me so you have some idea what you’re going to be doing. I may also stop the reading to give a note here and there or to ask someone to try something.

For anyone interested in actually being involved in the play, that’s something we can discuss at this event as well. I’ll be hanging around for an hour before the reading and afterwards as long as it takes to work everything out.

Everyone is invited. Even if you don’t want to read, your input and experience are still greatly appreciated.*

*However the booze is only for readers.

About The Two Noble Kinsmen:

William Shakespeare wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher in the year 1612. It was likely the last play he ever worked on. Because Fletcher had become even more popular than Shakespeare in later years, many editors stopped placing Shakespeare’s name in the byline. When Fletcher fell out of style during the Restoration, the play went with him. For over 200 years it went without a single performance until evidence and modern scholarship reasserted Shakespeare’s large contribution. For this reason it’s arguably the most Shakespearean play not to be featured in most “Complete Works” collections and has gone without performance in many areas, including Minnesota.

The play is based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, which itself was based on a story by Boccaccio which was based on a story by Statius who was inspired by one of the oldest of all myths. It tells the story of two young knights, Palamon and Arcite, who are captured by King Theseus during his war with Theban king Creon.

In prison the two cousins and lifelong best friends both fall in love with Theseus’ sister-in-law Emilia, who they see in the garden through their prison window. They go from planning a “noble” life in prison to attacking each other over the love of a woman who does not know either of them exists. When both leave prison and are free to continue their lives, they decide instead to risk death to remain in Athens and continue fighting for her love.

Shakespeare’s audience would have known this story pretty well, as Chaucer’s Tale had come to represent the way rediscovery of the Greeks led to chivalry in the Middle Ages. It began as a very reverent story about the inheritance of Western culture, but became a full-on parody by the time Shakespeare and Fletcher told it. Both had recently read Don Quixote and adapted it into a lost play called Cardenio. They seem eager to parody all the ideals of their culture in the same way.

It’s also one of the craziest plays Shakespeare ever wrote, full of songs, battles, references to past plays, and a sprawling cast of eccentrics (including a mad doctor, a man in a baboon costume, and one of Shakespeare’s best characters, the Jailer’s Daughter). Act 2 functions as an abbreviated version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Act 3 is a reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with many of the same characters, it could even be considered a sequel of sorts). It’s irreverent, complex, preposterous, perfectly structured, and insanely fun.

Hey all. Just checking in. Pretty much the last three weeks have been dominated by working on the play. So here’s a bit of a progress report.

As of this moment I’ve solidified my concept for the show. I’ve roughly designed a set that I think accommodates that concept.

I held a reading with nine other lovely people, and we discussed the play. I’ve cut the script down to around 2400 lines. I’ve signed and mailed the contract for the venue and the dates of June 23-26. I’ve settled on a company name: Stranger Case Theatre. The tentative logo is featured below.

I’ve also now read half a dozen different critical commentaries on the play and I’m more or less bursting with thoughts about it. With a couple more months until production really gets underway I’m just going to drop them here. Peruse them at your leisure.

What is Two Noble Kinsmen?
Two Noble Kinsmen is a play co-written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher around 1612 or 1613. It is very possibly the last play Shakespeare ever worked on, and some evidence suggests he wrote much of it from his home in Stratford. The story is an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales, which is itself an adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was an adaptation of a story from Roman author Statius, who based his story on an ancient Greek myth.

There are a number of fascinating things about the story, in particular the change in tone that developed over the years of its evolution. The protagonists, Palamon and Arcite, are two young prisoners taken by Theseus king of Athens when he invades the city of Thebes. Both young men fall in love with Theseus’ daughter, Emilia, and go from being best friends to sworn enemies in competition for her love.

The original myth was meant to depict the ideal soldier, resolute in love and duty even if it meant the killing of a friend. Statius adapted it with similar intent. The story was recovered by Boccaccio during the Middle Ages as the concept of chivalry developed. It became the single defining story about how medieval Europeans were transforming their culture through returning to ancient Greek ideals.

Of course as the Renaissance hit, chivalry was already on its way out. Chaucer’s adaptation is much more of a parody than Boccaccio’s. Shakespeare and Fletcher take an even more comedic look at the material, which some critics believe even borders on cruelty. However there is a sense that Chaucer at least looked back on those simpler, more idealistic times with a sense of nostalgia. The nostalgia is there for Shakespeare and Fletcher, but one of the challenges in adapting the show is figuring out just how sympathetic the authors were to that ancient code of knighthood. It’s worth noting both authors had likely read Don Quixote that same year for the first time, and were also working on an adaptation of that novel called Cardenio (Fletcher would adapt the book fifteen more times in his career, so it’s safe to assume he was a fan).

So if Shakespeare wrote it, why have I never seen it performed?
While this isn’t exactly true, the defining factoid about Two Noble Kinsmen is that it’s the least performed play by Shakespeare. It’s still probably in the bottom five, but it’s grown in popularity over the last fifty years, in large part due to its novelty.

The play did go over 200 years without a single performance. There were a number of reasons for this.

First, being the last play Shakespeare ever wrote and credited to a co-author who was alive when the first Folio was compiled, the play was not included in the first folio. Since that is the de facto qualifier for inclusion into the canon, the show was shrugged off by many critics for years. Initial playbills for the show (dating around the 1630’s) billed it to Fletcher and Shakespeare. However, Fletcher remained as popular as Shakespeare up until all the theatres in England were closed (and briefly after the Restoration), so most editors figured it was more valuable to credit the play to Fletcher and his cowriter Beaumont than to cram Shakespeare in the mix.

Of course today there are no Fletcher Festivals anywhere in the world. Shakespeare’s ascendance to the title of world’s most popular playwright occurred shortly after the Restoration. Fletcher, along with Two Noble Kinsmen, fell off the map.

It took a good 200 years for the critical establishment to accept the play as bonafide Shakespeare. Today it’s easier to find someone who doubts Fletcher’s involvement than someone who doubt’s Shakespeare’s. However once the play achieved acceptance, it was discovered that it was actually pretty difficult to stage. As different as Shakespeare and Fletcher’s attitudes toward chivalry were from Chaucer’s, our ideas have changed a thousand times more since the days of Fletcher and Shakespeare. So even if both authors (as I believe) were writing a vicious satire of noble culture in the vein of Don Quixote, the expectations and biases of their audience are nothing like the expectations of audiences today.

Also the dual authorship is noticeable, at least in the reading. Fletcher was a young, up and coming star whose quick, joke-heavy style was a reaction against the longwinded seriousness for which Shakespeare had become the posterboy. Fletcher even wrote a number of parodies of Shakespeare’s plays, much as Shakespeare had done earlier in his career to playwrights like Marlowe. The differences are obvious throughout the text.

For instance, Shakespeare tends to spell all his character names as he found them in Plutarch (his favorite source for material), while Fletcher tends to go with the spelling as found in Chaucer. Because I am a profoundly nerdy person, I’m amused by the idea of Fletcher arguing, “We’re not adapting Plutarch! We’re adapting Chaucer!” and Shakespeare responding, “Yeah, but… Plutarch!” Ultimately they just agreed to spell names differently in their scenes.

And unlike Hamlet or Macbeth or As You Like It, there is no dense performance history of directors and actors contributing to our understanding of the play. A director is essentially flying alone when they approach this material. That’s been both the biggest impediment and the biggest attraction for directors who wanted to tackle the show up until now.

Okay, so why do Two Noble Kinsmen?
I covered this a little bit in my last blog, but here I’d like to go a little bit more in depth regarding what I believe the potential for this play is and how I hope to achieve it.

The play is very much about the way legends affect how we live today. In Act 3 several actors perform a “Morris Dance,” which was a ritualistic, medieval dance full of symbols and allegorical characters. The dance predicts how the events of the story will play out. Often the character refer to past myths or the concept of “the gods” to explain actions they themselves caused. Palamon and Arcite are young and very idealistic. Old Greek heroes like Theseus and Pirithous look at them with a sense of nostalgia for youth, the way Renaissance audiences looked at chivalry, nostalgic for simpler ideas of nobility.

So I think this is the perfect play to adapt as my first ever foray into Shakespeare: I am adapting a 400 year old play which is about the way 400 year old plays affect the way we live (for better and worse). I think the play’s “problems”—the ending is a tough sell for audiences, and the story of knights just doesn’t appeal to modern audiences the way it did back then—give the director and actors opportunities to do precisely what the play is asking of the audience: to look at old stories and ask ourselves what the stories we tell today have in common.

The Royal Shakespeare Company staged the play in 1986 as a Kabuki drama, in the wake of Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear adaptation Ran, when audiences really liked samurai stories and easily related the strict code of the Samurai with the code of chivalry. Other stagings have made Palamon and Arcite soldiers, cowboys, and definitive alpha males with an emphasis on their sexuality.

Also it’s one of the few plays in Shakespeare that offers almost an equal number of major roles for women. To some extent this is ancillary. It was probably the result of the Globe burning down and Shakespeare’s company being forced to move to a young boy’s theatre called Blackfriars where they had access to more young actors for female roles than ever before. However in practice it means that some of the best female roles Shakespeare ever wrote, particularly the Jailer’s Daughter, have never been seen by audiences.

There is also that outsider appeal which I mentioned last time. This is a play most audiences have never seen. They don’t know how it ends. And so we get the chance to surprise people with Shakespeare.

The play is also very funny, very beautiful, and almost perfectly structured despite the dual authorship. It has a lot in common with late Shakespeare Romances like Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. There’s a lot of conjecture about why Shakespeare ended his career with the Romances. The genre had been considered outdated his entire career, and in fact he was the first playwright of his generation to revive it. Romance was a play about ideas, one that had elements of both comedy and drama, and which sacrificed the dense characterizations of Macbeth and Hamlet for larger ideas about the world. While the outdated Romances were mostly religious in nature, Shakespeare’s last act as dramatist was to modernize the form into what now seems like an almost postmodern kind of philosophical drama. His “gods” acting on the world weren’t merely figures for reverence—they were the larger forces at work in the lives of human beings just outside their awareness.

I tend to think Shakespeare turned to the Romances in his old age, just as he became the top dramatist in England, as a way of returning to the plays he grew up with. As a boy he loved Plutarch and ancient history. Almost all his Romances take place similarly in the past, with gods and oracles and spirits controlling the lives of his characters. In his Romances, an older generation looks nostalgically on a younger generation and views their youth as a kind of lost Eden. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest have a lot in common but are also fundamentally different. In Midsummer Shakespeare took the vantage point of the horny teenagers surrounded by spirits. In The Tempest he was the old man, bored with the same magic.

Of course working in an elaborate children’s theatre with space for puppets and complex staging, as well as large paintings of myths on the wall, didn’t hurt at all. Whatever the reason, the Romances mark a distinct and fascinating final stage for Shakespeare’s career that shines light on the rest. He wrote mostly comedies and histories in the first third, the great tragedies in the second, and ended by blending all those genres into something distinctly his own. Two Noble Kinsmen, regardless Fletcher’s contribution, falls into this camp.

24_TwoNobleKinsmen

Way back when I finished college, I set myself a five year plan. That was 4 ½ years ago. Some things in that plan simply will not come true. I won’t get a short film into Sundance. I won’t be working full time in the arts. Okay, actually nothing on the plan will happen with one exception. One equally ambitious entry on that list will come to fruition just one week before the five year deadline. This year, from June 22-26, I will direct a stage adaptation of a Shakespeare play.

This was a fairly late entry in my list of life goals. I attended my first ever performance of Shakespeare almost exactly five years ago. I had been curious before then, had read and not hated some of the plays in high school, but at the Guthrie theater that February night, somewhere in the middle of that production of The Winter’s Tale, I fell head over heels in love.

Over the next year I would read every single canonical Shakespeare. I attended performances where I could—watched some of the BBC productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company—obsessed over narratives surrounding the writing of the plays as postulated by many an editor. And from then on I knew directing Shakespeare was something I very much wanted to do. I didn’t know when or how or even which play, but I knew I wanted to direct precisely to make people feel the way I did that night watching The Winter’s Tale. I wanted to make them fall in love.

So anyway, this June I’ll be directing The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Phoenix Theatre. It’s notable for a number of reasons. One, it’s very likely the least performed play in the entire canon. For one stretch it went over two centuries without a single performance. And I should mention there are some really terrible plays in the canon. Even an avowed Bardophile like myself shudders when considering how I might stage full productions of Henry VI Part 1 or Henry VIII.

Of the Shakespeare experts I’ve spoken with, most have never seen it performed and many have never even read it. It’s often excluded from “Complete Works” collections, which is why I didn’t read it during my initial Shakespeare binge. My very first encounter with the play came a little over a month ago, on an audiobook, while driving home to Iowa.

At the time I was working with some friends on possibly staging Julius Caesar. However another company scheduled Ceasar for the same slot we were looking at, and I backed away from the project. However the process had revived my interest in Shakespeare, so I started reading some of the plays that have surfaced as, if not canon, then necessary adjacent reading over the last hundred years. These include Edward III, Double Falsehood (Cardenio), Sir Thomas More, and of course Two Noble Kinsmen.

Naturally I wasn’t expecting much. The other plays in that list aren’t very good, or are uneven at best. However listening to Two Noble Kinsmen on the car ride home I kept waiting for the play to take one of those egregious left turns that would explain its lapsed reputation. This twist never came. Instead, with increasing delight, I found myself dissolving into fits of laughter typically reserved for the best Shakespeare comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night.

Each scene built upon the other with fascinating characters like the Jailer’s daughter, beautiful ritual scenes like the Act 1 wedding, war, and funeral structure, and some of the best, most absurd comedy Shakespeare ever wrote. Act 3 staged a micro version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commenting on that play’s idealism. There was vast potential for subtext, complexity, playfulness, and visual flare, more than is afforded by many of the more respected plays in the canon. My smile grew wider and wider as I drove home, and by the end of the car ride I knew what I had to do next.

That very night I started looking for theaters. That night I ordered three versions of the script. That night I started reading and planning and studying because I knew this next summer I was going to direct this play, and not doing it was simply not a possibility.

But a quick explanation for why Two Noble Kinsmen never gets performed. The play was co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, who was succeeding Shakespeare as the most popular dramatist in England at the time. Most of the registers and documents of the play at its initial performance (1613, possibly the last play Shakespeare ever wrote) accredit it to both Fletcher and Shakespeare. However as Shakespeare retired and faded from the Spotlight and Fletcher took over for another decade, most people stopped bothering with putting Shakespeare in the by-line.

And so doubt grew about whether Shakespeare wrote the play at all. Within 100 years nobody thought Shakespeare wrote it, causing the two hundred year drought as Fletcher fell out of favor with modern audiences. Only with more stringent editorial practices and an acknowledgement of the overwhelming evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship (some plays easily included in the canon have far less evidence backing them) did the play slowly find its way back to the stage.

Today almost all editors generally agree Shakespeare wrote the play. Most even think Shakespeare was the story’s primary architect, writing the first act, last scene, and all the major character introductions. At this point in his career Shakespeare wrote a knotted, incredibly difficult verse that would have been hard to imitate; more importantly, you wonder why anyone would have wanted to.

And so like Edward III, Sir Thomas More, and Cardenio, Two Noble Kinsmen was basically gifted to 20th century audiences as a new Shakespeare play (making that his most productive century in quite some time). Unlike those other plays, Shakespeare’s brilliance can be seen often in Kinsmen.

I think there’s one impulse I’ve found that is an acceptable motive for directing something (other than lots of money. People, I will direct your thing for lots of money): I find something and think, “I love this, and I want to show it to other people so they can love it too.” And the impulse that I felt during Winter’s Tale—that I was seeing something larger than life, pain transcended, beauty embodied, the human experience understood and empathized with in ways I’d never seen before—is also present here.

Granted the play is also totally bonkers. Fletcher and Shakespeare have two different styles, and it’s noticeable. There are two storylines, one tragic and one comedic. The tragic storyline is hilarious and absurd, the comedic storyline devastatingly moving. There is a dance sequence featuring a man in a baboon costume making lewd gestures with his tail. The performance history has also been spotty. More major productions have been failures than successes. There are a number of reasons for this, but if I’m being honest, the challenge (and the absolute goldmine of material that lures people to accept it) is a large part of what excites me.

Imagine, directing Shakespeare where the audience doesn’t know how it ends. Imagine getting an audience full of passionate viewers who are all seeing Twelfth Night or Macbeth for the first time ever. This summer I get to do that.

So I will be using this blog to post updates. The first staged reading of the show is this next Saturday. If you feel so inclined, you should join us. Otherwise please stay in touch and save those dates on your calendar for later this year. I promise I will bring it.

 

Day-for-Night-22-825x510

Two of my all-time favorite films about filmmaking are Day for Night and Ed Wood. In both films, less talented filmmakers working on subpar movies have a moment where they grapple with the passion and ambition that lured them into the business. In the first case, Francois Truffaut recalls a moment as a child where he looked at stills from Citizen Kane hanging in a shop. In the latter, Johnny Depp’s Edward D. Wood Jr., struggling through making Plan 9 from Outer Space (known archetypally as “the worst movie of all time”), has a chance meeting with Orson Welles in a diner.

In both cases, one man (and the film from which his story is inseparable) is seen as the pinnacle, the spiritual ideal. There is no other work in the youngest of all art forms to challenge Citizen Kane, nor another director to challenge Welles, for this honor, and there probably never will be. As long as people look to go into the movies, they will dream about the 26 year old prodigy with an entire film studio at his disposal, building cloth ceilings for low-angled shots and playing baseball on set to humiliate producers.

No other movie Welles made in the rest of his career has even a fraction of Kane’s notoriety. This too is part of the romance. The only thing more appealing than watching someone build wings and take flight is watching them get too close to the sun and plummet to their doom. The stories of the filmmaker after Kane imply that he never recovered. All of his efforts were recut in Hollywood until eventually he was reduced to a “public figure,” getting fatter and grumpier and running around Europe with his many wives and mistresses, looking for funding from Iranian royalty.

Welles was first and foremost a sensationalist, and no doubt he himself fueled this fire. Controversial press, until the end, was better than no press at all; and there’s an argument to be made that the life of Orson Welles was indeed his most ambitious and complete art project. That would be fine, except for the fact that the man made 12 films. 11 of them are not well-known, despite being really good (and in two cases, as I’ll get to later, I’d argue they even outshine his supposed moment in the sun).

And so once again I decided to complete the man’s filmography and see where things stand. What I found was a series of films that, despite their reputation, are as consistent and excellent as any from the great directors of the day. And while some of them might very well have been “better” if their maker had final say, they all have moments of undeniable genius and feel like complete statements even in their truncated forms. With Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, currently in editing and slated for release next year, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the works from the one, the only Orson Welles.

12. The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger

There are many revered directors for whom The Stranger would be their masterpiece. Visually it is indelible. Welles is phenomenal as a heartless Nazi spy hiding in plain sight in a quiet New England town. The final action sequence, involving a giant clock, doesn’t disappoint either. In the very year WWII ended, it’s no surprise that two masterful “strangers in our midst” thrillers were released. Unfortunately for Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Welles’ regular co-conspirator Joseph Cotten matched his good movie with a great one in Shadow of a Doubt. In fact, in an even more fitting twist of fate, Cotten (who had initially been set as the lead in Citizen Kane) takes the same role as Welles and outpaces him there too.

Of all the films on this list, The Stranger has probably aged the most poorly (and that’s taking into account the awkward blackface in Othello). Loretta Young’s Mary Longstreet is frustrating in the extreme in her unwillingness to accept that her newfound husband is a killer. Also the plot with her father and Edward G. Robinson’s FBI investigator Mr. Wilson is 60’s Batman levels of incompetent and absurd and stinks of Patriarchal hokum. In this too I’m afraid Shadow of a Doubt has the strong upper hand with a great performance from Teresa Wright.

Still, while not entirely essential, The Stranger is still a film noir directed by Orson Welles, which means it’s effortlessly watchable, occasionally fascinating, and definitive of everything that makes noirs of that era timeless. Of all the worst movies made by all the directors, this one might be the best.

11. The Immortal Story (1968)

Immortal Story

Initially released for television and with a runtime under an hour, The Immortal Story likely could be excluded from this list. Only that would be a shame. It may not have the time nor resources to rank as a “major” effort, but nonetheless you would be cheated for assuming you had seen all of Welles without having seen this.

And maybe in this case compactness is a virtue. On display are all of the director’s chief fascinations: death, immortality, and the purpose of art. Now they are condensed and focused into a more whimsical tale where they can affect like music instead of philosophy. Welles plays Charles Clay, an elderly miser who hears a sailor’s tale and decides he wants to make it a reality. Roger Coggio plays Clay’s assistant, who slyly pays off a young woman (Jeanne Moreau) and man (Norman Eshley) to act the drama out for the old man as though it is real life.

The ensuing drama is quiet, surreal, and features the best performance Welles ever got from Moreau. This is also notably his only fictional narrative drama shot in color (and one of only two films he shot in color at all). Thick with atmosphere and dense with purpose, the film plays like a Romantic short story, a dreamlike parable that questions the purpose and honesty of telling stories or looking for fulfillment in storybook endings.

10. Mr. Arkadin (or Confidential Report) (1955)

Mr Arkadin

The version of Mr. Arkadin that I saw was The Criterion Collection’s “Comprehensive Edition.” In a sense this is the least official rendition of the film that exists. Welles’ post-Kane output was notoriously beset by studio tampering and recuts. At times he was legally banned from the editing room. As such, many of his films exist in multiple versions: the ones released in American theaters, the ones released internationally, and in some cases, the ones recut years later in an attempt by film historians to match the director’s original vision.

This, unfortunately, is not an exact science. In the case of Arkadin, you can tell that the movie is not a polished final product. It jumps, sometimes nonsensically, from one idea to the next. International huckster Burgomil (Michael Redgrave) hears a story from a dying sailor about the notorious Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Believing there’s some money in it, he hunts down the espionage magnate and potential war profiteer. Once their paths cross, however, he soon finds himself drawn into the old man’s schemes which could end with his death.

The film follows sometimes as many as three different timelines, a technique masterfully utilized in Kane. This film is a bit more of a mixed bag, though visually and theatrically it’s still just as exceptional. Kane in particular relishes playing the villain. Even if the whole is not exactly mindblowing, you can see the film’s immediate influence on the works of great filmmakers as influential as Stanley Kubrick.

9. Othello (1952)

Othello

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Orson Welles dons blackface in this movie. It’s awkward and even at the time was not okay. It’s probably the reason this is one of the more difficult Welles films to get a hold of (and many still aren’t even available in America on DVD).

However if you can get past that, this is an especially moving and sympathetic adaptation of Shakespeare. Like all of Welles’ 40’s and 50’s output, it’s a visually sumptuous production that uses the money of the studio system for mind-blowing tracking shots, sublime set pieces, and a heightened visual language that seems right at home next to the Bard’s weighty verse.

Welles got his start directing Shakespeare, and it becomes immediately obvious that he took these adaptations as personally as his own original work. In him Shakespeare finds his most stylish, technically capable translator into the world of moving images. I struggle to think of any three Shakespeare adaptations that do more justice to both the words in the script and images on the screen simultaneously.

8. Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil

There’s an amusing moment in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player in which two executives are chatting while strolling through a studio backlot. Producer 1 is talking about how Hollywood doesn’t make good films anymore. He cites the greatness of the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil. Producer 2 nods, then talks about more recent films that featured equally impressive shots. Producer 1 says he hasn’t seen any of those films, and then goes on about how great the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil is.

Most people have seen one and a fifteenth of an Orson Welles film. There’s Citizen Kane, and then there’s the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil. For many years this was also my experience, because that’s what they show you in film classes. Touch of Evil has its issues. Thematically, it’s not nearly as ambitious as Welles’ best films. Charlton Heston, who was forced on the director as a lead, also isn’t of the same caliber as the best Mercury players. The ending is incredibly silly.

However this is also one of the few films for which the director’s vision has, at long last, survived. This is thanks to a memo Welles wrote to the studio detailing in over 22 pages the logic behind the cuts and shots that he had pieced together. While the film was still hacked to pieces, historians were able to restore it largely to its former glory using those notes. That restored cut emerged in 1998, and the publicity around it could explain the film’s ascension to the right hand of the Welles Canon.

The result is an unapologetic B movie, a visual tour-de-force, a bravura performance from Welles, and yes, a pretty darn good tracking shot.

7. F for Fake (1973)

F for Fake

F for Fake is ridiculous. When it was released, it was panned by critics for being ridiculous. Welles runs around in a magician’s costume, hanging out with sexy twenty-somethings in Paris diners. He shares anecdotes about the writing of Citizen Kane, art forgery, Howard Hughes, and Pablo Picasso. Some of them are lies. Some of them might be true. Who knows? Who cares? The film’s bright colors, Wellesian voiceover so melodramatic it exceeds self-parody, and flagrant disregard for good taste all culminate in a kind of affront to the senses.

Orson Welles was an artist, but he was foremost a provocateur and sensationalist. There’s a reason Brain in Pinky and the Brain has the voice of Orson Welles. As I said earlier, he became a personality; a figure of pop culture. Orson Welles became more important than the films Orson Welles made. And here, for the first time in his career, he takes a sledgehammer to that idea. Every moment Welles appears in this pseudo-documentary, he is undercutting the notion of his own credibility. In his crazy costumes, with his stagy performance, he is daring you not to take him seriously.

And then he contrasts his own egomaniacal reputation with the people who built the cathedrals. “The greatest works of art in history, and there’s no name written anywhere on them.” That’s the gut punch moment, one that Welles had been reaching for his entire career. While many deride this film because it is silly, lacking in all forms of legitimacy, for me that’s precisely what makes it phenomenal. It’s a narrative film without any weight. It’s a documentary without any facts. It’s a movie that pretends to be full of itself, to its own failure and shame, precisely because it’s completely lacking in ego. This is the anti-Kane.

6. Macbeth (1948)

Macbeth

I’ve often wondered why Welles’ Shakespeare adaptations never caught on. I think the reason is that film fans love pure Orson Welles, whereas Shakespeare fans love pure Shakespeare. Welles had no interest in purity. And so his Shakespeare adaptations are a precarious marriage of the two. They are accurate, in keeping with the work of a trained classical aesthete. However they are also deeply cinematic. They re-frame Bill’s works in ways he may not have intended, to serve the needs of the modern, potentially less cultured filmgoer.

As a fan of both mediums (which I’ll admit are tougher to merge than most people will admit) I am a huge fan of Welles’ Bard collaborations. This Macbeth in particular is one of the most outright fun action films shot in the forties. It’s bloody, its Gothic art design is insane, and its effects are every bit as impressive as Kane and Ambersons before it. This movie has some shots that look better than hundred million dollar films shot sixty years later.

For all intents and purposes, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s blockbuster. It clocks in at nearly half the length of Lear and Hamlet. The verse is especially sing-songy, the plot especially thick with witches, storms, and murder! This play does, after all, feature the line “By the prickling of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.” In a way that makes it the perfect film for Shakespeare to adapt, especially in his career.

Welles’ most famous pre-film theatrical production was Julius Caesar, which conjured Fascist imagery in the early days of World War II. Even at the time people wondered if the man really understood what the Bard was getting at, or if he was using language about tyrants and war for his own purposes. The general consensus was that it worked, so who cares?

5. Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Magnificent Ambersons

The notorious follow-up to Citizen Kane is one of the great, maddening smears on Hollywood’s image. Welles played the legend up admirably. The director famously said that his original cut, a rogue edit which potentially could sit in 35 mm in the closet of a hostel somewhere in Argentina, was the greatest movie of all time. Having just made Citizen Kane he was curiously specifically qualified to make this claim.

Welles shot and edited Ambersons using largely the same team from Kane. It was the second film on that famous deal that allowed him total control of RKO’s studio. Then when the director was out of town the studio heads ordered reshoots and completely recut the film without his permission. Then later they destroyed the original footage. The “compromised” version is all we have today.

But it’s still pretty great, to be honest. The movie’s irreverent sense of humor, rogue editing, and nuanced performances all feel every bit as modern as Kane‘s. The content of much of the reduced runtime hints at a grander, more powerful vision that might have been. Still, saying the movie is notable only as a maddening missed opportunity does it a disservice. This is a phenomenal film, beginning to end, that grips you with its craft and ingenuity. It deserves to be listed among the classics of its era.

4. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Lady from Shanghai

While Welles is seen today as a self-important egotist, it’s always interesting to me just how much he stayed within the popular genres. The people wanted film noir. Welles dutifully filled half his oeuvre with pulpy crime plots, thick shadows, and canted angles. And it’s fitting that the best film of the lot is the pulpiest by far.

The final sequence of this film is one of the greatest action moments in movie history. The film leading up to it is densely atmospheric, filled with a globe-trotting mystery and a colorful cast of characters. Welles plays dimwitted sailor Michael O’Hara, seduced by the titular Lady (Rita Hayworth) who is married to an eccentric old kook named Arthur Banister (Everette Sloan). O’Hara is hired by Bannister, and takes the job as an opportunity to romance the man’s wife.

Things quickly turn sour for a myriad reasons and O’Hara finds himself way in over his head. Welles loved playing heady intellectuals, so it’s nice to see him play a schmuck for once. He also gets to rail off a phenomenal monologue about sharks and cannibalism. The movie bears a dreamlike haze that reminds me of the best works of my favorite filmmaker from the era, Jaques Tourneur. And of course, again, there’s that final sequence. Boy howdy is there ever that final sequence. It really needs to be seen to be believed.

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane

What can I say about Citizen Kane that you haven’t already heard? How many film historians have poured over this movie, shot by shot, frame by frame, and examined every corner of every set to the most meager detail? What could possibly be added to such a legacy? Nothing is the answer.

Welles himself grew tired of talking about Kane as his career drew on. He preferred his later masterpieces (which I’m getting to in a second). I’ll admit I’m kind of with him. Yes, Citizen Kane is awesome. Its layered timeline, ambitious lighting, and propulsive camerawork are all more than curiosities in film history. They’re fun to watch. They’re engaging. It’s one of the best movies ever made.

But I can honestly say I just have no interest in talking about its place in film history or its merits. One thing you don’t hear as much about is how the film sets a precedent for the kind of dark revisionist history that would drive its artist for the remainder of his career. Welles, from the get go, used film to explore the concept of fame, of achievement, and the more ignominious demise of every human life that hides just under the surface of all our stories. Death: we don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to face it. Some people make things, some fall in love, some have adventures, some become heroes or villains, but everyone dies. And maybe accepting that would make us all a bit more human, a bit less willing to hurt each other for imaginary reasons.

Welles continued this train of thought until the end of his own life. If there is one discussion about Kane that would potentially be beneficial, it’s how it works as a specific artistic statement from a specific artist, instead of a broad, almost pointless laurel in Hollywood’s trophy case.

2. The Trial (1962)

The Trial

One of the strangest things about watching all of Orson Welles’ films together is observing the jump from his fifties to sixties output. Even when he couldn’t get a final cut in Hollywood, Welles was still as technically consistent as any filmmaker who ever lived. His films are stylish and visually flawless.

His sixties output, on the other hand, is full of problems. The sound is a little bit off. The visuals are inconsistent. Part of the problem here was resources. Welles retreated to Europe to see his visions completed. His quality control was limited outside Hollywood backlots.

However, Welles was also an ambitious artist during an era of aesthetic rebellion. While Truffaut and Godard rewrote film language in France, Bergman ruminated about death in Sweden, and Fellini scoffed at reality in Italy, Welles dialed back on the Golden Era polish. He became more a contemporary of the revolution than of Wilder and Hitchcock. Most famous directors did not survive this transition. Welles thrived under it.

And so you get the first unaltered post-Kane masterpiece, a gloriously surreal adaptation of Franz Kafka’s most famous novel. Whatever the location scouts on this film got paid, they deserved a raise. Every location feels lived in, like a fantasy rendition of the bombed out neo-realist classics from Rossellini and De Sica.

I’m halfway tempted to find some significance in Welles making use of bombed out postwar locales to adapt the 20th century’s greatest German author. I’m not sure there’s really anything there, but I think Welles would have approved.

1. Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Chimes at Midnight

Some people might see Chimes at Midnight as a simple Shakespeare adaptation. While Welles drastically reorders the events of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, for the most part he sticks to the script. The story remains the same. The young prince Hal wastes away his youth in brothels and taverns, cavorting, carousing, and occasionally stealing with a fat old knight named Falstaff. Soon, however, duty calls, and Hal throws off his youthful rebellion to become the greatest king in England’s history.

It’s Shakespeare’s most successful long-form story, largely because of the character of Falstaff who became so popular with Queen Elizabeth that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor just to give the Queen another play starring the character. Today dimwitted, shameless Falstaff sits right next to Lear, Iago, and Hamlet as the most sought after roles in the Canon. He pretends to be dead on the battlefield to avoid danger. He insults the young Prince even while begging him not to end their friendship. The character embodies all that is sad, feeble, and degraded about humanity, and becomes endearing and convincing for this reason.

Most people stage Henry IV  and Henry V as coming of age stories. Hal is a rebellious teenager who becomes a hero. It’s a happy story. However sitting on the edge of that narrative is always Shakespeare’s most conflicted invention, the sad, fat knight whom Hal must kill (metaphorically and literally, it turns out) if he is to live up to the example of his father. There are the great doings of kings, the larger narratives of history, greatness, honor, nobility, and then there is that image they seek to hide: a fat old man, carried out in a giant coffin to a nameless death.

There have been moments in history where scholars found something in Shakespeare everyone previously missed. We can’t read Hamlet anymore without considering Freudian psychoanalysis. We can’t read Lear anymore without thinking of Beckett and Waiting for Godot. In my opinion, Chimes is just as profound a leap forward in understanding the histories. The marriage between Shakespeare’s humanity and his interest in the larger doings of the world was always a difficult one for directors. Even today you watch Henry V and wonder if he’s really a hero or a villain. The director can never make up his mind.

Welles found his answer, and chooses to make Falstaff the hero rather than Hal. The battle scene in this film is one of the most effectively brutal ever filmed. Every death is shot in such a way that it’s painful. Every life matters. The violence that Henry IV and Harry “Hotspur” wreak on others to sustain their own heroism and nobility is shown here for a violent lie meant to bury the less attractive violent truth of human frailty. Falstaff and his companions have heard the chimes at midnight; they know what’s coming; they have no delusions.

In the wake of 60’s rebellion, Falstaff goes from eloquent clown to cultural icon. It’s maybe the only Shakespeare film adaptation in history that manages to be as good, as profound, as necessary as its source material. Welles grew up idolizing Shakespeare. He became a similarly singular figure in his own art form, but even more impressive, at one moment he matched wits with the Bard and came  at least as close as Adam did to God. No wonder he considered this his best film.

 

Earlier this week I started running down all of Martin Scorsese’s 23 narrative feature films. Part 1 of that list is here.

And now I present my 11 favorite Scorsese films. Brace yourselves for hyperbole.

11. The Departed (2006)

The Departed

“When I was your age they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

The Departed is really close to being a masterpiece. The cast is stacked. The script is exciting and hilarious. And while the cops vs. robbers plot seems par for the course, tonally this movie is unlike anything Scorsese had ever made before. The Departed is a very, very good movie. Unfortunately, that little extra—that thing that makes his best films sublime—comes down to the aforementioned quote. A question is posed in no uncertain terms: “What’s the difference?”

The screenplay purports to answer this question. Leonardo DiCaprio’s bullheaded Billy and Matt Damon’s sleazy-but-polished Colin keep finding themselves in the same situations. Both fall in love with counselor Madelyn (Vera Farmiga). Both are viewed as sons by crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). And while both ultimately experience the same fate when they face the loaded gun, we’re meant to understand there was a distinct difference. Frank trusted Billy more. Madelyn ultimately responded to Billy’s sincerity, however acerbic, compared to Colin’s heavily-rehearsed banter.

Only I feel like I’m taking the movie’s word for it. Back in the day, with DeNiro and Keitel as the foils, there would have been no doubt. But I just don’t buy that Madelyn would fall for Billy so quickly or that Frank could be so entirely duped. Both Damon and DiCaprio are good. It just doesn’t coalesce for me like the best Scorsese films. What’s left is a very exciting, very funny, very quotable and rewatchable movie in which a lot of people swear and get shot.

10. Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets

Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket is one of my all time favorite films. That filmmaker and film’s survival owe a lot to Martin Scorsese. While Wes’s twee terrariums don’t seem to bear much resemblance to the Goodfellas brand today, the relationship makes a lot of sense when you look at where they started out.

Even the superficial comparisons are telling. Both films tell the story of well-meaning young men on the search for enlightenment and the self-destructive battle brothers who threaten to hold them back. Both showcase inordinately self-assured instincts for style and dialog that seem to evolve straight from their creators’ soul rather than any contemporary style or movement. In fact, I almost think my long romance with Bottle Rocket hurt my enjoyment of its forefather. I had seen and been deeply moved by this film before, only more specifically targeted to me and my generation.

But that does nothing to offset Mean Streets’ greatness. The bar fight alone ranks high in the annals of full-blooded action cinema. De Niro is phenomenal as he would be many, many times over the next twenty years. Keitel is similarly great. And then everything else just kind of falls into place: a vision of the world where the Virgin Mary, the Rolling Stones, the Saturday matinee, and the education of the street form an ontology that seems completely logical. If the novelty has faded somewhat in 40 years, the effectiveness has not.

9. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967)

Whos That Knocking At My Door

Conventional wisdom says that Martin Scorsese’s first film is best viewed as a preface. This is the sandbox where a great career was first shaped; basically JV Mean Streets. Many of his signature fascinations are present—the Catholic guilt, the freewheeling street lingo, the rock and roll montages. The fully formed vision would arrive five years later.

In my opinion this does a disservice to a film that is truly great in its own right. Admittedly, the period between this and Mean Streets would weed out some extant habits. The New Wave experimentalism would not survive the journey. A stronger emphasis on classic storytelling would also emerge. However, Roger Ebert saw enough in the film to call it a new paradigm in filmmaking without any knowledge of what the next fifty years would bring.

The montage of Harvey Keitel in bed with numerous women is exhilarating cinema of the highest order. The flirtation between Keitel and Zina Methune is genuinely sweet. And the scene where the young men heckle two girls they brought home for a party is as pure a realization of the Scorsese brand as anything in Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. Their raging bro patter sounds like the cackling of hyenas. These aren’t tendencies waiting to solidify. They’re novel and very effective depictions of the war between body and spirit; a genuinely affecting story about a man reaching for God in the animal kingdom.

8. Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas-still

It’s hard to write about Goodfellas right after the two previous films, because I’ll start to sound like a broken record. These three films basically form the collective image in our heads when we hear the word Scorsese. A kid falls in love with the power and respect from mob life. His head full of the American dream, an old fashioned image of cowboys and paternal authority figures, he discovers that crime fits his perfect world better than anything else he can attain in his lifetime.

Goodfellas just picks up where those last two films left off. Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill scales the town pecking order quickly. When the real story kicks in, he has already lost his soul. He laughs emptily at sociopathic Tommy DeVito’s (Joe Pesci) jokes about violence and racism. When asked why he’s laughing, his response is it’s just funny. He’s long since lost sensitivity to any feeling that doesn’t get him power or respect. And it’s worked out pretty well.

This is arguably the film most people have seen, so there’s not much reason to reiterate its value. In fact, if it were by any other filmmaker I would probably have to justify why it ranks so poorly. Goodfellas is Goodfellas. It’s the classic, the genuine article, 100% pure product. I like several movies better, but this is really the standard by which they’re all judged.

7. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Bringing Out the Dead

Should there ever be a straight modern adaptation of The Inferno, Nicholas Cage should be the first choice for Dante. There is no man who seems more at home walking through hell. In Scorsese’s gonzo narrative apostasy, Cage plays a paramedic on the verge of insanity. Three nights Frank Pierce gets into his ambulance. Every one of them gets a little more apocalyptic. By night three he’s drinking and getting high at the wheel and watching the neon lights whiz by like he just activated the hyper drive on the Millennium Falcon. He begs his boss to fire him before it’s too late. The audience knows precisely when it’s too late.

Paul Schrader wrote four films for Scorsese. All of them were explorations of the line between sanity and madness. All of them were classics. Bringing Out the Dead has elements of all those previous films. Like Travis Bickle, Frank is disgusted by poverty and corruption in the low rent neighborhood he patrols for his job. Like Jesus, he sacrifices himself to save these people.  Like Jake LaMotta, he seeks many cinematic forms of redemption, even when they make no sense. We all play these roles at some point in our mortal coil, and nowhere else did Scorsese get at just how bonkers it all is.

6. The Last Temptation of the Christ (1988)

Last Temptation of the Christ

Earlier I paraphrased the opening line from Mean Streets. Here’s the actual quote:

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”

There is no collective Martyverse like that which connects all of Tarantino’s films. However if there were, it wouldn’t be hard to draw the line between most of his characters and Jesus. Jesus might appear in more of these movies than anyone else. Usually he pops up in paintings, stained glass windows, or pre-credit quotes. Still, his presence is felt.

There is the church and there is the street. Most of the Martyverse embraces the latter, but finally he ventures into the painting and explores the heart of spiritual yearning that hovers just outside the rest of his oeuvre. Harvey Keitel now plays Judas as a Zealot, on the edge of the story almost the way Jesus would normally appear in his films.

There are many reasons Last Temptation was controversial in its time. It is not a straightforward adaptation of the gospels. It features extreme violence, swearing, and nudity. Jesus sleeps with Mary Magdalene. Jesus experiences doubts. And yet honestly I cannot think of a more orthodox popular work about Jesus. Do you think Andrew Lloyd Weber actually thought Jesus was going to rise again when he made Jesus Christ Superstar? Scorsese seems to actually buy it all. He has no reservations about the physical claims such as miracles and resurrection. He just doesn’t buy the stuffy, reverent part.

Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast in opposition to every quality of a prototypical Scorsese protag. He is introspective, meek, indecisive, weak-willed. He actually seems like someone who could deliver the beatitudes and mean them. He seems like someone who could say, with authority, “Not my will but yours be done.” He seems like the work of someone who actually sat and thought for a long time about what Jesus would be like. That’s fairly novel, for the atheist or the Christian.

5. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore

Martin Scorsese primarily makes movies about men. This is unavoidably true. Even his biggest fans cannot deny it. His films are often critical of masculine habits and biases, but they also rarely venture over the line into the female perspective to provide a counterpoint.

That is except for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of the 70’s truly great dark comedies and a film in which men are almost entirely viewed as other. Alice and her friends are the people with dialog. Their worldview drives the film. The men, in particular Harvey Keitel’s Ben, are inscrutable. The only male depicted with any first-person insights is Alice’s oddball son; and since our introduction to him involves the music of Mott the Hoople, it’s reasonable to assume his relationship with traditional masculinity is complicated as well.

But this isn’t just Scorsese’s lady picture. Arriving between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, this character study is as unique and insightful as either. Ellen Burstyn is phenomenal as Alice. She tries to balance post-war maternal concerns with post-revolution feminist freedoms, arriving at an uncomfortable compromise. You can tell Scorsese is working hard to stretch his range, trying to give his female protagonists just as much empathy and complexity as he gave to the boys from Brooklyn a year earlier. This is what it looks like when a world class filmmaker, at the height of his powers, looks beyond his horizons and tries for something completely new. Stylistically, thematically, aesthetically, morally, this is as strong a film as he ever made.

4. Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull

One well-known saying about American studios during the seventies and early eighties goes, “The inmates were running the asylum.” The directors, writers, and artists took over the major studio productions. Names like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and others headlined pessimistic, artistically-inclined films that likely would get small independent releases today. This period is considered an artistic golden age by some, a failed experiment in benevolent capitalism by others. There’s a reason it couldn’t last. There’s also a reason so many films from this period continue to survive.

No movie typifies this sentiment more than Raging Bull. Raging Bull might be one of the strangest, most fascinating films ever to embed itself in the public consciousness. Do you really think this would be a hit today? Would such uncomfortable, gritty scenes as De Niro’s, “Did you fuck my wife?” rampage be listed right alongside “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca as definitive moments in movie history? Would audiences be willing to connect the dots between LaMotta shouting, “I’m not an animal!” and its roots in Kubrick’s Spartacus?

Because even though its’ greatness is so readily accepted it can be listed alongside Rocky and Hoosiers on ESPN, Raging Bull is insider filmmaking at its most beautiful and inscrutable. It was intended to be so. It is knowingly, aggressively cinematic with the intention of showing just how much Scorsese was capable of when he pushed himself. The allusions to classic cinema; the free-flowing mumbling, profanity, and casual violence; the ballsy artistic flourishes; these are all anti-commercial excesses today. It is spiritual filmmaking by a guy who was actually thinking, “I want to compare myself to Robert Bresson, to Andrei Tarkovsky, to Akira Kurosawa.”

And amazingly, it didn’t just work for the cinephiles. It worked for everyone. Even if the inmates ultimately couldn’t hold the asylum together, at least we have Raging Bull to point to and say, “See what we can agree on when we all come together?”

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Wolf of Wall Street

At 73 years old, Martin Scorsese was supposed to have been entering his “twilight” period. It’s almost impossible to talk about this film without mentioning Quentin Tarantino’s dictum about “old man movies” old directors make when they can’t cut it anymore. Half a dozen reviews I read when the film first came out all mentioned it.

And the consensus said this was Scorsese saying, “Oh yeah? Well watch this!”

The Wolf of Wall Street is not an old man movie. In fact, it might be the craziest, most inventive, liveliest, most straight-up punk rock movie the Mayor ever made. There is not a scene, not a decision, not a line of dialog that isn’t a punch to Capitalism’s corpulent gut. It would be tempting to simply call it a response to the critics of the last decade of prestige pics and Oscar legitimacy, if this film weren’t fueled by such moral fury that it operates on a level where petty criticism simply does not matter.

And for the first time in Scorsese’s and his collaboration, Leo looks like a true successor to De Niro. His charisma, his youthful glow, his undercurrent of resentment all explode here in ways they hadn’t in any film previously. He is a force of nature as Jordan Belfort. This is the best performance of his career, and it is not close.

The film was misunderstood initially. Not only will that fade, it will ultimately be part of what makes this film a classic. This is one of the first films in the modern era that had the intestinal fortitude to show the American Dream as viewed in actuality. It depicted the way society actually treats these levels of decadence and corruption. It said, “This is what we are,” and people responded with, “That’s despicable! Why would you show us that?” It took the secret reservations we all hold, the compromises thousands made when faced with money and power, and put them on the screen for us to actually consider.

In some ways society is broken because the idealists live in a fantasy that in no way resembles the reality they’re fighting. Scorsese took it on. He stared it down. He didn’t bury it in parables about gangsters or the alien past. He finally said, straight up, “This is how American actually works. This is what we encourage. This is what we reward.” The greatest crime filmmaker of all time made his greatest crime film about an American who, technically, didn’t commit many crimes. The crime he showed was one in which the entire audience was complicit.

2. Taxi Driver (1976)

Scorsese

Bernard Hermann’s sultry jazz score kicks in over the top of New York City, painted in neon lights and volcanic smog; then Robert De Niro owns the impotent self-loathing of Paul Schrader’s screenplay.

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

And you think, whatever cinema was meant to be, it is this. Scorsese once pointed out that his hero, Michael Powell, had memorized a lot of canonical poetry, admitting that he personally was not nearly so well-read. But with Taxi Driver Scorsese proves himself a master of the poetics of moving images. The prosy confessions from Schrader merge almost miraculously with a new kind of vision for a new audience.

Taxi Driver has not aged a day in forty years. It is still shocking, still thrilling, still universally affecting like classical music. Travis Bickle sits right alongside Holden Caulfield as great expressions of male angst and postmodern insecurity. Robert De Niro has delivered some amazing performances, but once you see Taxi Driver you know the one he was born to play.

The same goes for Scorsese. Both before and after, he told some transcendent stories ambitiously and successfully, but the perfection he reached here is lightning in a bottle stuff.

1. The King of Comedy (1982)

King of Comedy

At the level where Martin Scorsese operates, there is no such distinction as “best.” A good majority of these films are timeless and inventive. Some were more influential than others, but all have been assimilated into the language of modern film in ways that are indistinguishable to those of us who weren’t present to watch the change occur. It would be ill-advised, maybe impossible, to comment on the historic or cultural value of these films. At the very least that’s a much different discussion.

But among the handful of his best movies—the ones that hit hardest, that linger years later, that seem especially perfect—The King of Comedy is the one for me. That’s not to say that it’s definitive Scorsese. It’s not even to say that it’s his most accomplished work as an artist. However it does mean something. The top five to seven films on this list all reach a rare level of excellence most filmmakers can only dream of. I cannot argue against any of them. But the experience I had watching De Niro sleazily worm his way into television’s spotlight is one that I can decisively, and without reservation, call most affecting on myself as a viewer. For me it indicates an artist at the peak of his powers, using the camera as a tool to guide the audience through a unique, thrilling journey by what Tarkovsky called “shock and catharsis.”

Scorsese’s milieu has always been the gut-churning language of violence. His music is the siren’s song of wealth and power, the buzz of adrenaline, the thunder of machismo, the idyll of camaraderie. Some ill-founded critics have gone so far as to argue his cinema is so masculine it cannot be understood by women. If you can work your way past a very natural gag reflex, that impulse is not entirely off. This much is true: Scorsese makes movies about an older notion of what it means to be a man. The immediacy of his cinema—the ability to sit down without any knowledge and be effortlessly transported—is tied up in just how alluring one finds that experience. How much do you want to be king of the castle? I think the fact that women can, and do, enjoy his films is a testament to just how much these identities are projections.

But enough of that. My point is, Scorsese is a documenter of sin and vice. It would make sense that the film depicting your vice of choice would be the one you prefer. This is the case for me with King of Comedy. I am embarrassed by Rupert Pupkin because I see so much of him in myself: his desperate need to be liked, his willingness to go to Olympian lengths for attention, his excess of bravado that mask his dearth of talent.

At the same time I also see the nobility there. Fame in media, especially talk shows, is pretty absurd. There’s a context built that tells us when to laugh, when to gasp, who to respect and who to consider a schmuck. These qualifiers are mostly imagined. Like the hero of a Kafka novel, Rupert is frequently told there are gates he cannot enter, but he insists on trying anyway. At first it feels sickening. Then it’s sad. Soon it starts to feel heroic.

And then there’s that final line, which for my money is the best in movie history.