Either it’s Raining, or I’m Dreaming

photo courtesy of the author
Newlyweds talk to a fortune teller at a diner. An airplane travels back in time. A telekinetic goes gambling. The devil buys souls. The devil is imprisoned in the basement of a monastery. Astronauts disappear. Aliens land. Nothing is okay. Everything is okay.

These are the stories I began 2015 with. New Years’ Eve was a simple equation: The Twilight Zone and champagne in my brand new apartment in Los Angeles, hanging out with my cats on one of the few furnishings I’d managed to purchase.

Los Angeles during the holidays could have its own episode: mistletoe strung up beneath blue skies and palm trees, fake snow coating outdoor malls, tank tops with beaded holiday greetings. So it was fitting to start my first year in a new city with stories about extraterrestrials and ghosts and worlds that aren’t quite our own.

I’d moved to L.A. weeks before. I knew what 2015 would become before it even began: a year of navigating a new city alone, making new friends, finding new theaters and video stores and bookstores. New, new, new—no matter how much I hate and avoid new, that’s all anything I met would be. New.

Much of the new was exciting: I made friends; I drove the length of the coast, stopping off in Big Sur for a lunch overlooking the ocean; I drove my car to the beach and my feet into the sand; I went out for drinks and didn’t talk about murder; I had my first In’n’Out burger.

But still, I spent stretches of time alone. Any new place requires adjustment, and much of the move had been prompted by the need to be closer to family, after losing two of our own. This ongoing grief, combined with the loss of familiarity, often left me feeling out of joint, uncollected, misplaced.

Movies, as ever, were an easy fix.

I found a video store ten minutes south of my apartment that quickly became my favorite Friday afternoon destination. The store, Videotheque, is small and dense. Crossing the threshold is like walking into 1995. Shelves are loaded with DVDs and one small TV set in back plays Withnail & I on repeat. They stock deep cuts next to deep cuts next to deep cuts and organize movies by country and then by director, so when I found a new love, I could delve in, directly or tangentially.

And so that vertiginous feeling of moving forward while feeling stuck compelled me to look backward, to Francois Truffaut and Dario Argento and Wong Kar Wai. Directors telling stories that orbited loss and sadness and quietness in just the doses that I needed.

You said “I love you!” and I said “Stay!”

Before I left New York, a close friend found out I’d never seen Jules et Jim, and nearly disowned me. He’d bring it up every time he saw me, but the more he did, the more belligerently I refused to watch it. I wouldn’t be bullied into anything, I told him. No way, no how.

And then I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t have those regular conversations to look forward to. Trenches of time opened up, and I needed to fill them with cocktails of the new and the nostalgic. So I went to Videotheque and rented the Truffaut film. Finally.

Set in Europe before, during, and after World War I, Jules et Jim centers on a best friendship between Jim (Henri Serre) and Jules (Oskar Werner). Together, they discuss poetry and women. Interests and relationships are transient. Too much or too little or too nothing. Everything is gleeful and fleeting, too fun, too thoughtful. Until Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).

The three of them become inseparable. Both men love Catherine, but she drifts toward Jules, and Jules asks Jim to promise not to trespass. He doesn’t, even though he loves her, and then the war begins. Jules and Jim go to the front.

The promise and hope of youth is shattered by the war and cannot deliver, but the characters refuse to acknowledge the reality of what they’ve already lost. They persist into unhappy marriages, confused liaisons, disappearances, broken promises. Nothing lessened, nothing gained.

Watching it, I knew why my friend had been so shocked. The movie was perfect for me. Not only did it hinge on World War I—a war I find myself continually returning to, because of its devastating, shattering force within the context of the 20th century—but the friendships in the film are like magic, and that’s how I’ve always thought of mine. How impossible it is, to find someone who speaks the same language you do, and how important it is to hold onto, once you’ve found that.

Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.

Horror films are new for me. For most of my life, I’ve been too scared. Or I thought I was too scared. I avoided them. Until I began grieving. I watched one terrible B movie with supernatural scares, and then another. I didn’t flinch. In fact, I found the experience oddly enjoyable. I liked not being scared. It gave me a sense of invincibility. I would rent a movie, buy myself a bottle of wine, and then curl into my couch for an evening of not-being-scared-by-the-scary.

Which is how I found Suspiria: Dario Argento’s horror film wrapped in a fairy tale. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), small and diminutive and with the dream of becoming a professional dancer, goes to Germany to attend a prestigious ballet academy. The academy, however, isn’t normal. The first night she’s there, she can’t get in the front door, and so she goes to stay in town. What she doesn’t realize is that, inside, another student is being chased and brutally murdered. The academy is a front for malevolent and dangerous forces, and Suzy soon finds herself in their cross-hairs.

The world of Suspiria is neon. The walls inside the academy are bright pink. Skylights cast fluorescent rhombuses across the floors, violently patterned with optical illusions. Blood splatters aren’t anomalous in this landscape; they’re expected.

Which makes the horror of Suspiria especially vivid. What Suzy is facing—the witchcraft, the death—is bright and dangerous, but so are her desires. She wants to be a ballerina. She wants to study art and form. She wants to fit in, to be liked. To feel at home in a foreign country. She doesn’t want to die.

Movies like Suspiria are cut through with their own particular blend of hopefulness and naivety. We can still survive, the characters think. No matter what we’ve already seen, no matter what we know to be ahead, we’ll be okay. Even if they won’t be, they fight as if they will, and that’s everything.

This is what I attach to most, when watching these horror films, most especially Suspiria. They’re built so that viewers can face their own fears, their own mortality. They fear they quell buoys to the surface, and they handle it within the manageable space of two hours.

Facing them and not turning away can make a viewer feel limitless.

Everything will be okay.

It isn’t, but it will be.

Did I leave the tap running, or is the apartment getting more tearful?

On one of my first visits to Videotheque, I realized they stocked Chungking Express, an early Wong Kar-Wai film.

I rented it immediately and watched it that night. But watching it just once wasn’t enough. A few months on, I went back to the video store and rented it again. And then, another few months on: again.

Chungking Express is, as with all Wong Kar-Wai, both gentle and strange. The melancholy never leaves the screen. The characters’ losses are embodied by cans of pineapple and toy airplanes. They miss what they can’t have, and don’t notice what they do.

The movie is two separate stories told one after the other, both featuring two police officers in unrequited love. In the first, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is left by his girlfriend on April Fools’ Day. For the next month, he purposefully collects pineapple tins that expire on May 1. He’ll give her the month to change her mind, he thinks, and if she doesn’t, then their love would be thrown away, along with the pineapple. If memories could be canned, he wonders, would they also expire? On May 1st, without the return of his ex, he tries to pick up a mysterious woman wearing a wig and sunglasses, but the encounter devolves. He watches old movies in their hotel room while she sleeps.

The second story is my favorite of the two: Cop 663 (played by a soulful, young Tony Leung) is recovering from his ex, a flight attendant, when he encounters Faye (Faye Wong), who works at a fast food restaurant in his neighborhood. Cop 663 pines for his ex, while Faye pines for Cop 663. While he works, Faye sneaks into his apartment and inspects his space and possessions. If he doesn’t notice her, or give her time to get to know him through conversation, this is the next best thing for her. She cleans, she tidies, she imagines how he fills the space when he’s there, she blasts California Dreamin’ and imagines herself in the spaces as well, alongside him.

Chungking Express is laced with absence and youth, sadness, and small graces. It’s about feeling lonely in a big city, and letting yourself build up fictions around the people you pass on the street.

That’s what this last year felt like. It was a year for small graces and gestures. A bottle of champagne. A package of books in the mail. Nothing was perfect, but my world became peopled and full as time went on. I took care of myself. I drove until my tank ran out, and then I drove some more. Learning the streets. Learning the new edges of my new home. Knowing that one day it will be that—my home—and allowing patience until I get there.

That old Joan Didion aphorism—“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—has never felt more real to me than it did this year. We watch movies to begin to understand the meat of things, to test the boundaries of where we are, and try to push past them. Movies can be a kind of magic: They transform your sad and small emotions into something substantive and worth investigating. They provide a vocabulary for your experience, luring your secrets out like flower bouquets hidden up sleeves, or a never-ending scarf tugged out of your throat, up through your vocal chords.

Witches chase ballerinas. Best friends go to war. Wives take lovers. Wives disappear. The stewardess leaves, but someone else stays. The pineapple expires.