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121_box_348x490_originalAlternative Viet #1: This Viet knows what he wants and gets it, always. In high school, this Viet isn’t the shy and sheltered teenager who is constantly surprised to discover that his classmates are, indeed, having sex. Instead, this Viet is sexually active and sophisticated, having both male and female lovers. This Viet doesn’t stare at people longingly, wondering what it would be like to love and feel love, but is already jaded about the whole deal, with the insouciance of a European playboy. This Viet doesn’t stay home on the weekends, listening to Saint Etienne’s So Tough album on endless repeat, translating British ennui into a more pedestrian, suburban heartbreak. No. This Viet is not at all like the other one.

Alternative Viet #2: This Viet has adopted Viet #1 as his own. It’s college, after all: who here knows who the ‘real’ Viet is, except for the daughter of the Asian supermarket owner? And how often will their paths cross? Very rarely, this Viet realizes. The time has come for a reinvention, for a radical makeover, and this Viet can be whoever he wants. This Viet creates his own myths and disseminates them as far as they will travel, because if enough people believe a story, doesn’t it, in fact, become true, like a dream made flesh? If he insists on the primacy of this Viet, the other Viets will fade away, become distant, apocryphal memories, almost as if they never existed, and no one would be the wiser.

Alternative Viet #3: This Viet is in trouble. He has been called to the carpet to reconcile the differences between the various Viets.  B___ waits for him to explain. B___ is this Viet’s first boyfriend, and this Viet wants to get this right. But the history he has given B___ does not comport with the histories of Viets #1 and #2, which Viet’s friends have shared. How can there be so many Viets running around? Who is the ‘real’ Viet? B___ says that he understands the urge to become someone new. Who doesn’t want to be cooler than he really is? B___ says, even though B___, himself, has gone the opposite direction, converting to Catholicism from Protestantism because Protestants aren’t ‘by the Book’ enough. This Viet wonders: what difference would it make if the history he’s told B___ is the ‘real’ history—the virginal history, the history of sexually inexperience and ineptitude? What if all the Viets have begun to bleed together, the confidence of the other Viets giving this one more of a sense of self-worth? Why would anyone ever want to be a normal Viet, confused and stumbling about, when there are other Viets out there in the world, Viets who know what they’re doing, Viets who make no apologies, Viets who might be able to tell him the right thing to say to B___ so that the surgical excision of the other Viets from this one won’t hurt as much.

109_box_348x490When I got a Mohawk over the summer, my parents reacted with horror:  you look like a punk, my father said.  A no-goodnik.  A Mexican.  I had once joked, as a teenager, about getting a Mohawk, and my parents said that if I did, they’d hold me down and shave my head all the way.  My mother pleaded with Matthew to convince me to revert to my old haircut.  “I can understand him wanting to cut his hair that was if he were young,” my mother told him.  “But he’s almost forty.”

I thought, There’s no way they would have let me have one while I was growing up.  I waged my follicular rebellions in secret.  One evening, when they had gone to dinner with friends, my sister and I mixed up a bowl of sticky blue dye, a color that could only been seen directly under light.  We smeared a protective layer of conditioner along our hairlines—Direct contact with skin may result in a burning sensation, the package read— and tried not to touch anything with our heads for two hours.  When we rinsed, we were disappointed to see the color:  most of it streaked the bottom of the bathtub, and none of it had stayed in our hair.  Our rebellion washed down the drain.

So, at the start of the summer, as Tomacina took the clippers to the side of my head, the revolutionary spirit rekindled.  The grey hairs fell away, a clearcutting of old-growth lumber.  My head felt lighter.  And when she had finished, the black nylon haircut cape was speckled with years of my life, shaved off.

Early in The Scarlet Countess, there’s a scene of Marlene Dietrich on a swing, playing the young Catherine the Great.  When the camera focuses on her face, it’s unmistakably her, though something seems off.  Let’s face it:  Marlene Dietrich is one of the screen’s greatest sexual icons, but she can’t pull off a teenager too well.  Her hair, a mass of blonde ringlets, can’t disguise the sensuousness of her eyes, and despite her attempts to play the ingénue, her sexual persona shines through.

Over the summer, I paid careful attention to other Mohawk-bearers.  We were a secret brotherhood, I thought, until I realized that my brothers were, on the whole, much younger than I was.  The Mohawk was a bit of play-acting on my part, something I could pull off for a short time, but not convincingly.  Maybe it’s better to let Marlene be Marlene and for Viet to be Viet.

My hair grows quickly, so it only too about a month for it to reach sufficient shagginess.  The new school semester was about to start.  I returned to Tomacina, and she asked what I wanted.  I repeated what I’ve said to her at least a hundred times now:  one-and-a-half on the sides, longer on top, kill the sideburns.  She ran her fingers through my hair.  “You’re a mess,” she said.

Bob Hoskins walks into the Ritz wearing a Naugahyde jacket the color and texture of an orange fruit roll-up, and beneath that, a Hawaiian shirt which even retired Floridians would decry as too loud. Later, he shows off a gold medallion. At the bar, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Bloody Mary, he thinks nothing of his clothes: they’re new, after all. He’s comfortable in them, proud of them, until the call girl he’s been driving around she sees him and sums up her feelings in a word: Christ.

The camera shows the dining room: white arches, chairs with red velvet cushions, and crystal chandeliers. Rose marble columns, potted palms, Oriental rugs. Everything is gilded—the statues in the recesses, the harp on which the harpist plays—and when the light reflects on your skin, you yourself become golden.

Matthew and I were there on Christmas Day. My cousin, who lived in London at the time, made the reservations, her treat. Tea at the Ritz!: the only hotel to have its name adjectivized. On the long escalator rides in the Tube, adverts framed on the walls spoke of the tradition of spending the holidays at the Ritz, only £50 a person.

But once we arrived, I felt under-dressed. Some men wore tailored tuxedoes. I wore a suit I had owned since college, when it fit a slightly skinner version of myself. It pinched, and the material seemed scratchy. When I reached for my teacup, too much of my cuff showed. Even the waiters’ uniforms seemed custom-fit. For the next hour and a half—before we had to make way for the next seating—I tried to convince myself that I belonged there.

But my clothes gave me away, I thought. The call girl who paid for Bob Hoskins clothes tells him: Being cheap is one thing. Looking cheap is another. That really takes talent.

Afterwards, sated with cucumber sandwiches and lapsang souchang, as we gathered our coats, an older woman emerged from the downstairs casino. She was tall and elegant, Parisian, I imagined.  But:  she wore the most astonishing hat. It teetered upon her head, a swirl of purple, as if Gaudi had built a beehive out of felt. I couldn’t help but gawp as she passed by. I turned to Matthew in order to confirm that what I had seen was real, but instead, I caught the eye of an older British woman. With a wry smile, she said, “I see you looking,” in a tone of voice that humored as much as it chastened.

Chances are that hat cost more than my suit. But she seemed so at ease in it that it didn’t matter that I found it slightly ridiculous, much in the same way that I found myself slightly ridiculous. She wanted to call attention to herself, so if she was there, then Bob Hoskins could be there, and so could I. I put on my overcoat (second-hand, bought at a Washington D.C. garage sale) and headed out into the London winter.

Suicide 1: N___ was two classes above me in seventh grade, while his brother, E___ was one class behind, in fourth.  N___’s curly hair was cut in a proto-mullet, with wavy lines shaved into the sides, and he maintained a light wisp of a mustache, so blonde and light that it looked like a trick of the sun. He wore neon-colored clamdiggers and short-sleeved shirts as though he were a California native trapped in land-locked Colorado. Whenever I visited his brother, who lived two blocks away, he regarded us with an indifferent air, the way a queen ant ignores the workers scurrying around her.

There was conflicting news of his death: some people said that it was an accident, that he had shot himself while playing with a gun; others said that it was deliberate. E___ missed two weeks of school, and when he came back, I treated him gingerly, with no mention of N___, even though N___’s presence hung over E___ like a bubble.

I was afraid of grief—not E___’s grief, which made him walk as though the floors of Parklane Elementary were pools of wet clay. That grief was evident, palpable. No, I was more afraid of N___’s grief, a huge, unknowable thing that could swallow a person up in an instant, in an irreversible contraction of the index finger.

Suicide 2: My cousin H___ was a police officer in the Los Angeles, and my family drove to California for her funeral: my parents, sister, aunt and uncle all crammed into a van. There was no stopping in Las Vegas for a run at the casinos, no pauses except at gas stations, where I was allowed to look at the candy but not buy any. H___, too, had shot herself. I remember her round face, her feathered, neck-length hair, and how, once, on a previous visit, I had slept in the same bed with her, and she advised me: if you fart in the middle of the night, the least you can do is lift up the comforter to let it out.

By then, though, I had been thoroughly brain-washed by suicide-prevention filmstrips; suicide I now considered the highest act of selfishness. The closest I ever came to suicide was holding a kitchen knife to my wrist and thinking, I could do it, I could, in teenaged high Romantic mode. But the practical truth of it, I knew, was more unbearable: a closed-casket ceremony, her fellow police officers sitting stiff-backed in folding chairs, her boyfriend gripping the brass sides of the casket so hard that it shifted on its base.

The question I wanted to ask E___, the question I wasn’t able to ask H___ was Why? But I suspect that even if they could have answered, it still wouldn’t have made sense. There is no why. There’s only the act. The doomed lovers in Double Suicide proceed to their fates with mechanical certainty, and the black-shrouded Bunraku puppeteers look on, anguished, as H___’s mother clutches a framed photograph of her, repeating, No one’s as beautiful as my H___. No one.

In 1960, L’Avventura was awarded the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for its “remarkable contribution to the search for a new cinematic language.”  That language, according to Seymour Chatman, is a metonymic cinema, in which the landscapes are physical externalizations of a character’s inner emotions.  Objects in the landscape, Chatman states, “serve as metonymic signs of [the character’s] inner life.”  Thus, the barren, volcanic island which serves as the stage for the first part of the film represents the characters’ own inner barrenness.

Antonioni frames his characters such that they’re not looking at each other, or even in the same direction.  They are, in the words of numerous critics, alienated.  Even when they speak, they turn away from each other, or one character has her back to the other.  They speak to empty space, to jagged, black rock formations, to sea sprays.

When Matthew and I are angry with each other, I direct my words towards the spot just to his left or to the thinning spot on the carpet where the cats have ripped out the piling.  We look past each other, as if the weight of actually looking—seeing—each other would drag us both down to the floor.  We avoid touching, and turn our bodies going up and the down the stairs, lest our contact set off a spark the burns the whole house down.  The air, it seems, is colder.  But is the landscape a metonymic extension of myself or is it simply February, and we’ve set the thermostat to 64° because our last heating bill was nearly three hundred dollars?

He stands off to the side while I’m typing and looks at me, as if daring me to look back.  I don’t.

Have you eaten dinner?

No.

He leaves the room.

András Kovács argues that characterizing Antonioni’s mise-en-scène as metonymic is reductive.  “If Antonioni’s landscapes are ‘empty,’” he writes, “it is not because they express by their physical aspect the characters’ mental state.  It is because the characters cannot find their lives in there however beautiful they may appear…. They wander around in it not because they want to find something that is out there, but because they have lost their human contact with that world.”

In the final scene, Claudia approaches her lover Sandro, sitting on a bench, from behind.  Sandro has just betrayed her, and he weeps into his hands.  Her hand hesitates before she places it, tremulously, on his head.  Antonioni himself offers conflicting interpretations of her gesture:  “She will stay with him and forgive him,” and “What they finally arrive at is a mutual sense of pity.”  To Sandro’s right, a solid brick wall, grey and stubborn, featureless, crumbling.  To Claudia’s left, Mount Etna in deep focus, streaked with what looks like snow.  But they don’t look at each other.

Matthew and I will reconcile.  Our lives will resume their normal course.  But before that, we have to look:  Look at my face.  Look at this piece of me that represents the whole.

 

Washington, D.C.: You were a regular at the Georgetown Barnes & Noble, where I worked.  You favored the second-floor café, past the political science section frequented by the grumpy and bow-tied George Will.  You must have noticed my staring, my rushing downstairs to take your special order, my clearing of magazines around your table.  So when you brought your girlfriend in, I knew that was for me too.  I saw you in the Metro, standing like a foraging crane, as the train pulled in with a pneumatic sigh, and you got on.

Washington, D.C.: I met you at JR’s running the ‘bachelor auction’ for the Whitman-Walker clinic.  I was covering the event for the Washington Blade.  I swear you winked even before I  interviewed you.  During the auction, I caught you shill bidding, trying (and failing) to raise porn star Ty Fox’s price above $20.  We met afterwards and made out.  In Brief Encounter, Laura Jesson imagines herself in Paris, in Venice, on tropical shores with her newfound beau.  I asked my editor if there’d be a conflict of interest dating you, but the answer was moot when I learned, later, that you were moving to L.A.

Chicago:  I was helping my friend June move into her apartment on the outskirts of Boys Town.  I was walking down Halstead, or to Halstead, or back from Halstead, I can’t remember, and the L rattled overhead like an angry prayer.  As I passed, we made eye contact.  I counted my steps — two, three – and, in the time-honored tradition, turned my head to see you looking back as well.  I continued walking.  I looked back again, and you looked back too.  Watching you, I nearly ran into lamp posts, off the curb, into traffic.  But we kept walking forward into our respective futures, all the while looking back.  At the end of Brief Encounter, Laura’s near-abandoned husband says, “Whatever your dream was, it wasn’t a very happy one, was it?”

Denver:  Barnes & Noble again.  You came in slightly frazzled, and I radioed for my co-worker to check you out.  She signaled her approval, and I went up and asked, Can I help you find anything, and you said, No, I can find what I’m looking for myself, and, though rebuffed, I offered future help, should you need it.  But I kept an eye on you from around corners, over rows of bookcases.  I ran into you again standing in the main aisle.  What do you know about this? you asked, holding a book on comparative genocide.  I faked an answer, even though I’d looked through that book at a different Barnes & Noble, in a different city.  You gave me the upper left corner of a check, where your name and number were printed, as a down payment on the future.  We still see each other occasionally — as you wake me in the morning, as we drive to work, a nighttime nudge — and each meeting stitches our worlds closer together, like the individual threads holding a button in place.

 

Part of me will always be an adolescent boy.  The part that stands in stores, reading comic books until the proprietor yells, “Hey, this isn’t a library!”  The part that giggles at dick and fart jokes.  The part that sees the future as a vast, undisturbed plain at the end of Wheeling St. in suburban Aurora, long before the encroachment of warehouses and office parks.  The part that holds desire like a switchblade — awkwardly, blindly, secretly.

This is the part, too, that enjoys Kevin Smith movies.  At the comics convention that opens Chasing Amy, one grizzled vendor wears a ‘Fuck Marvel Comics’ t-shirt.

Marvel Comics once had a contest where readers could send in samples of their own work.  One could compete in the penciling, inking, coloring, lettering or writing categories, and the winners of each would collaborate on an issue of Spider-Man.

I wasn’t familiar enough with the Spider-Man storylines to attempt writing, but lettering I thought I could do.  It requires a steady hand, a ruler, a knack for identifying empty spaces in the frames where language and thought can take shape.  Having only one of the three, I didn’t enter.

Besides, I had already tried making comics.  In middle school, my friend Josh C. and I created a three-panel comic strip called “Froggy.”  But since I was inept at drawing, Froggy was nothing more than a three-toed, ambulatory lingam.  We did a traditional three-panel strip, commonly known as ‘the funnies’:  set-up, build, punchline.  And, being middle-schoolers, we moved quickly from existential crises regarding the inability to catch flies to dick and fart jokes.

Holden and Banky, the comic-creating duo of Chasing Amy, eventually separate, in part, because of Banky’s submerged feelings for Holden.  “Some doors should never be opened,” Banky says.

Josh and I were separated by the military’s propensity to ship away families to new bases.  He used to regaled me with stories of coming across his mother’s boyfriend, post flagrante delicto, walking around with his boner, howling “A-roo-ha-hoo!”

Really?

Yep, he said.

We had swim class together, and there weren’t enough stalls in the locker room to accommodate all the bashfulness.  Once, as we showered, Tim S. zipped in and mooned us, but more often, a line of damp boys formed a queue in front of the only stall in the bathroom.

Josh wielded his unabashed sexuality like a matador’s cape.  As I waited on the bench for the stall to open, trunks clinging and reeking of chlorine, he whipped off his shorts and slipped into his underwear.  Maybe he noticed me looking.  He asked, “Aren’t you changing?  Ashamed of your manhood?”

Well, yes and no.  Our bodies were still sprouting in unforeseen ways (some more than others).  We were no longer boys, but we couldn’t claim the mantle of men — not so long as we kept subsuming and covering our desires with bluster and indifference.

Josh knocked on the stall:  “Ready yet?”  But I wasn’t yet ready to open that door.

Peter Bogdanovich introduces The Third Man by mentioning how Carol Reed’s black-and-white photography makes post-war Vienna look preternaturally wet. The light catches the edge of each cobblestone, treachery multiplies along the length of the street, every step a wrong step.

The climactic chase through the Vienna sewers, as well, makes it look as if Vienna had been hit by a monsoon. The water falls in great cascades and winds its way through pipes, channels, passageways. If the city above ground is a ruin, then then the city underground is a maze, an elegant trap from which there is no escape.

But it’s still a sewer. Outside the Vienna Opera House, gilt and filigreed like a carousel, agencies offer tour groups for any number of tastes: the Mozart Tour, the food tour, the World War II tour. The Third Man tour features sites from the movie, with a special excursion into the old sewer system. This is no different, I suppose, than the Philadelphia ghost tours which highlight the cemetery where a scene from The Sixth Sense was filmed. But I don’t recall, however, spirits rising from the toilet to torment Haley Joel Osment.

The Third Man makes the sewers seem almost sanitary. Only one character mentions the smell, but even then, the high arched tunnels make the sewer look like a submerged cathedral. Policemen rappel down and into waterfalls of effluent. People splash in the rivers of liquid. It’s a sewer removed of its scheisse.

Modern-day Vienna still has an underground, of course. In particular: the bathroom near the Opernring announces itself with a jolly yellow sign: Opera Toilet. Mit Musik! Musical notes dance around the words, as if they’d been flushed down from the opera house above. Does the music come piped in for free? Or is there a jukebox inside the loo, vending concertos the way other restrooms sell condoms?

The other bathroom is the only bathroom worth a mention in Rick Steve’s guidebook. It’s down a flight of stairs along the Der Graben, Vienna’s main commercial drag (with translates roughly to “the trench.”) This trench is lined with high-end stores:  Chanel, Hermès, Tiffany’s. People double-fist their shopping bags, store names fanning out like birds during mating season.

This restroom is famous for being designed by Adolf Loos. I wonder if he took it as a challenge: let’s see if I can make something beautiful out of this. And, for the most part, he succeeds: the urinals dividers are sheets of marble; the stall doors are dark, slats of wood with a large milk glass pane, and above each stall, a transom.

But when I went down into the bathroom, there was no mistaking the ultimate function. At one of the far urinals, a man relieved himself. The smell of urine seemed trapped there, underground. Accidental puddles dotted the elaborately-tiled floor. When I took a picture (his, the bathroom’s), he didn’t notice the flash catching the room in light, the way his profile came, momentarily, out of the shadows. Or else, he resolutely ignored it. Austria is, after all, one of history’s great denialists: they convinced the world that Mozart was Austrian and that Hitler was German.

My knowledge of Peeping Tom will forever be incomplete.  For some reason, my disc freezes and refuses to play from about the 75-minute mark to the 85-minute mark.  (From what I understand, I miss two crucial scenes:  Mrs. Stevens’ confrontation with Mark and the psychologist’s explanation of scopophilia.)  And now that Criterion’s version is out-of-print, I can’t easily go out and buy a new one.  I looked to see if the disc was scratched, but no:  all I could see was my horrified reflection staring back at me, screaming No, no!

Even with the commentary track switched on, no go.  Shortly after Laura Mulvey says, “It was Andre Bazin who first pointed out the relationship between photography and death,” she cuts out entirely.  Even stranger:  when I went to check out Visual and Other Pleasures from the University of Delaware library today, it was listed as ‘missing.’

The world conspires to keep me ignorant.

I know just enough film theory to pontificate convincingly, but not enough to do it with conviction.  My lack of conviction, however, wasn’t enough to keep me from presenting a paper at the 8th Annual Lambda Rising Queer Studies Conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  (I don’t believe that a 9th Annual Conference ever took place.)  This was in the spring of 2000, after I’d already decided to attend the University of Houston for my MFA in fiction writing.  I don’t recall ever taking a formalized class in film as an undergraduate; most of what I knew was self-taught.  I was a dilettante.  Still, I thought, it would be fun.

So the Saturday morning of the conference, Matthew and I made our way up to Boulder.  I’d practiced my presentation — a running commentary on the film Sleepaway Camp — with the ease of a man trying to pass off a cubic zirconia as a diamond.  And I wonder if my nervousness that day was akin to the nervousness I feel the first day of classes every semester:  all those faces, waiting for you to feed them knowledge.

My presentation, admittedly, was an unholy mish-mash of Laura Mulvey, Carol Clover and Harry Benshoff — not to mention that Sleepaway Camp hardly merits critical attention.  But as I lectured, I could almost believe my own theories:  the camera as not just a male gaze, but a homosexual male gaze; watch how it travels beneath the partition of the bathroom to peek at the occupant, how it lingers on the bodies of the male skinny-dippers.  Oh, Camille Paglia would have my head on a platter, but theory is nothing if it isn’t a way to look at the world, and while I spoke, I understood the world of Camp Arawak, and the foothills sunshine of the city outside me, and the audience that sat before me, who gasped as that curling iron really went you-know-where.

In grad school, the de facto point man for my group of friends, A___, assigned us all superpowers and corresponding code names.  C___ became ‘The Deconstructor,’ able to use his aporetic powers to destroy bullets by demonstrating that they’re simply texts with irreconcilable and contradictory meanings .   I was ‘The Persuader,’ who could cajole almost anyone into doing his bidding.

It’s an old parlour game, of course — a chestnut amongst college students who like stretch out hypothetical questions before them like a red carpet.  But for nerds, geeks and dweebs alike, the question takes on a particular resonance.  A superpower isn’t merely a neat trick one — it’s a replacement for an identity.

Take the X-Men.  I was reared on them.  At one point, I had a subscription, and every month, I waited patiently for the mailman to deliver my copy (I was also concerned that he might fold the comic in order to fit it through the mail slot, which would irrevocably diminish its resale value; eventually I found it easier to visit a shop — plus, that way, I wouldn’t have to wait a month).  And I daydreamed about – – as most young comic book readers do, I imagine — about what superpower I would have.

But just one!  How to choose?  I was able to narrow it down to three:  1) the ability to walk through walls, à la Kitty Pryde (a manifestation of a desire not to be excluded?); 2) the ability to turn invisible (a desire to go unnoticed?); 3) the ability to fly.

Indeed, in Brazil, this third ‘superpower’ is what low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry finds himself daydreaming of:  his mechanical wings gliding through the clouds so that he can rendezvous with a diaphanous woman.  It’s the desire for escape.  (In the documentary What Is Brazil?, Gilliam describes how he came up with the idea of Brazil:  on a visit to Port Talbot in Wales, he noticed that the sand on the beach had been blackened by years of coal shipments trundling across it on conveyor belts.  He went on to imagine a man at sunset, sitting on that beach, surveying the black expanse around him as the song “Brazil” comes on the radio next to him.)

I didn’t have a dystopian, bureaucratic state-corporate apparatus from which I wanted to escape — high school in Aurora, Colorado had its drawbacks, but mistaken renditions were not a daily worry.  But what high school student doesn’t dream of escaping his surroundings?  Of flying above the familiar landscape towards something more exotic?

Of course, flying would have its drawbacks.  How do you keep bugs out of your mouth?  What about the lack of oxygen?  If you’re flying fast enough, wouldn’t the air pressure keep you from breathing properly?  How quickly would your arms tire of flapping?  But that’s the thing about daydreaming:  it arrives unencumbered by reality.  It’s only when you try to bring those dreams into reality (like poor sam Lowry) that the trouble sets in.

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