Essays, Movies, Personal Lens

Old Joys of Oregon

I was born in Oregon, and often I suspect my heart still lives there. I spent a good portion of my childhood in a small rural town in the Oregon countryside, and even after my family moved north to Washington (where I’ve lived ever since), Oregon was still our destination for vacations and day trips. I’ve taken enough road trips in and around the areas where Kelly Reichardt’s film Old Joy (2006) was shot that I was able to identify geographical errors– at least one of the towns visited by the protagonists is in the opposite direction of where they’re said to be traveling. These inconsistencies don’t cause me any irritation, to be clear: they make me feel elated. I’m not used to seeing areas I feel an intimate connection with portrayed so intimately on film.

And oh my, is Old Joy ever intimate. There have been some brilliant recent films set in the Portland, Oregon area, such as Leave No Trace and Lean on Pete, but those films are brilliant on the strength of their character work, and sometimes let the landscape take a backseat. Old Joy interweaves character with landscape expertly…or maybe it just felt that to me, someone whose soul is intricately and inexorably tied to the endless Evergreen trees, the Columbia River, the winding mountain roads, the creeks and rivers, the clouds.

oldjoy

Old Joy feels like a film about attempting to recapture something lost by the pull of time– an intimate relationship, a time of less responsibility and worry, a simpler existence communing with nature. It explores the futility of these attempts: The world encroaches in the form of garbage left on a beautiful mountain ridge, responsibilities of parenthood and career stress await back in the city, people on the radio never run out of things to say about the state of the government and society as a whole, and that relationship has changed. It may never again be what it once was, regardless of how much longing one person may have for the past, real or imagined.

The film also suggests that this progression of time and changes in life are natural. That sorrow is just worn out joy, transforming and breaking down as everything must with the passage of time. It also suggests, reassuringly, that moments of true peace and intimacy can be found, if only fleetingly. The entire film has a heady and powerful energy, but never more so than when we arrive at the hot springs. Mark looks up as he listens to his old friend Kurt tell a long, rambling story with a perfect conclusion, and the expression on his face is indescribable. It is a once in a lifetime moment.

old joy

I felt this entire movie in my very bones, because I’ve left Oregon behind. I will visit the Columbia Gorge, the Oregon Coast, and my eternal city-love Portland again, and probably sooner rather than later. But something has shifted, and it had shifted before I left. I felt my joy starting to turn old, the comfortable weight of familiar surroundings becoming slowly ever less comfortable, more constricting. This film is so evocative of its location, a location that I feel a deep and heavy connection to, that I was able to perfectly synthesize the setting of the film with the emotional journey of the characters. It felt like going back, in someone else’s shoes. A deeply comforting experience, and also one that gave me a lot to think about. When I go back in my own shoes, will I be trying to recapture something that has well and truly past? Will I be attempting to reclaim joy from sorrow? Would I be wrong to do so? In the meantime, while I ponder these questions, I’m grateful to Old Joy, for allowing me to revisit some old joys of my own.

Essays, Movies, Personal Lens

Confronting the Suffering and Salvation of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

(Content Warning: This essay contains discussions of child abuse, including references to physical violence and sexual abuse.)

I have the double-edged fortune and curse to have only hazy memories of the physical and emotional abuse I suffered in early childhood. I vaguely remember some of the events, but usually as an observer, a phantom outside my body watching it happen. I’ve succeeded recently in remembering the fear, which had calcified into denial over the years. My earliest memories of my abuser that I can access now are giant walls of fear, memories I had denied the existence of for years because of the often gentle and jocular demeanor he’d developed in the years since.

I was fortunate, I told myself, that I’d only been struck, beaten, verbally flayed and excoriated in my earliest years, where the memories were foggy and vague and supposedly couldn’t cause me direct violence. I ignored the fact that harsh tones or raised voices from others produced physical sensations of deep pain and bruising in my body; I ignored the continued low-level buzzing fear I felt around my abuser almost all the time; I ignored the way he could make me sob by clenching his teeth. I ignored my own anger, the pervasive instinct to attack anything or anyone who wronged me, the bile-producing sinkhole in my heart.

Eventually, I had to confront it. I had to dig down into the fog, searching for some truth and clarity, and I came to the unshakeable conclusion that the abuse I suffered will be affecting my soul for my entire life. It molded a key, primal part of my being. Only by staring into the fog do I have any hope of making it through.

Unlike Laura Palmer, I have no distinct memories of being sexually abused. I carry around enough dysfunction in that area of my life, and dissociated through so much of my early childhood, that I can’t conclusively rule it out, but I also have no concrete evidence to believe that was the case. Regardless, as an abuse victim, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me took on the power and gravity of a religious experience. The protagonist is an abuse victim who denies, who plays it cool, who casually puts herself in dangerous situations, who gets angry, who screams. Her abuser should be a kind caretaker, and mind-breakingly enough he often is, enough that Laura sees his abusive behavior as the work of a malicious spirit, horrified to find out the abuse is being carried out by her father.

The last act of Fire Walk With Me is essentially a passion play, and I’m definitely not the first person to see it that way. It’s easy for abuse survivors to see Laura Palmer as a saintlike or even Christlike figure, someone to identify with, feel deeply for, and look up to, all at the same time. I think this is the case because she’s so realistic, and her feelings are so keenly felt, but at the same time, the show and film highly mythologize her. It’s hard to imagine that a film about the repeated sexual assault and ultimate murder of a teenage girl could have much of a spiritual dimension, but Fire Walk With Me transcends the gut-punch of its premise, and the supposed limitations of its connections as a companion to a dense and complex television show, to zero in on Laura Palmer’s heart. And in her heart, I found mine.

Essays, Movies, Personal Lens

Personal Lens: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

(Note: This is not a review or analysis of Stephen Chbosky’s 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but rather a reminiscence about what the film once meant and continues to mean to me as a young queer person. A previous, slightly shorter version of this piece can be read here. Happy Holidays! – L)

When I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the cinema in 2012, I was 17. I was just about to begin my senior year of high school. This would be my first time in the same school environment for more than one year at a time, the first time I hadn’t struggled in school to the point of a breakdown. I was happy, but I wasn’t celebrating; I was mostly worried about the fact that I didn’t have any friends.

To set the scene further: in 2012, I knew I was some kind of queer; for at least the past year I had been mentally describing myself as questioning. I thought I was a strange boy who wanted to look like Greta Gerwig for some reason, and I was pretty much exclusively into women but really, really didn’t want to call myself “straight.” For the past two years, I had been spending most of my time with my then-partner, who lent me flowy scarves and nail polish and let me be “the girl in the relationship.” Unfortunately, but this time that had resulted in two years of catcalling from strangers and harassment from my father, so these privileges were confined to stolen moments in bedrooms. I no longer wore the scarves to school. I didn’t know I could be a girl. I hadn’t come close to figuring myself out.

After a year each at two different weird alternative high schools in my dead-end Southwest Washington state town, I’d lucked my way into a program that would allow me to take all my classes at the local community college. The advantage of this was that school no longer felt like gears were grinding together in my head all the time; the disadvantage was that I put a lot of distance between myself and the friends I’d just managed to make by that point. As a result, my senior year of high school basically felt like a freshman or sophomore year, socially.

When I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I viewed it as being mainly a story about a wonderful group of friends. I caught a glimpse of what I had been missing, holed up in a room with just one other person for the last two years. In between crying fits, I decided that when school started, I would make sure to do whatever I could to make friends.

Two weeks later, I started drama class.

Two months later, I had friends.

I was drawn to a classmate who I’ll call C. C loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and saw it at least three times in the theater. C was tall, flamboyant but gentle, and reminded me a lot of Patrick as specifically portrayed by Ezra Miller. C also wore makeup, earrings, and heels in class. I was enthralled, but also intimidated, so we didn’t talk as much as we should have. I didn’t know what to say to someone who was so clearly like me in a way I felt that I couldn’t be. C seemed to be a gay boy, something I was pretty sure I was not, but nevertheless…

I also got to know a classmate I’ll call M, and fell for her pretty thoroughly. We’d meet up in the library and discuss our writing ideas and the movies we liked; we’d study together and talk for hours. She told me about the queer-themed TV projects she wanted to work on, and inspired me to think about writing again in a way I hadn’t for a while. Even though my partner wanted us to have an open relationship and encouraged me to go for it, nothing ever happened. But I thought about her a lot. If it had been the ’90s, I probably would have made her a mixtape. (Like Charlie, I was that kind of a dork.)

Not everything about Perks is true to my high school experience. I was too oblivious to know where most of the parties were happening, too anxious to do any drugs, and I’ve still never been to a Rocky Horror screening. There were no cafeteria fights, no truth-or-dare drama. The feeling, though? The emotional fabric of this movie is 100% spot-on. Watching it again now, I felt like I was back. Not just in high school, not just with those friends, but back in a previous version of my head. Old pangs, old traumas, an old body.

After graduation, I lost touch with most of my classmates. M moved to Florida before I could say anything about how I felt; I was too shy to ask for C’s phone number. Plans fell through, I retreated back to my room and had a slow and painful breakdown that would ultimately span the next few years. I fractured. I have no concrete reason to believe that I suffered the kind of childhood abuse the protagonist of Perks has (all I have to go on so far when I process my traumas are suspicions and feelings), but I know the exact feeling being represented in the climactic sequence.

My breakdown played out in slow-motion, commencing two years before it plateaued, but eventually I started finding my way out, and into a more hopeful future. I realized that I wasn’t “just a boy with weird gender stuff going on” after all, that I could in fact be a girl, that I was in fact not straight (whew!). I finally got out of that dead-end town. I started confronting old demons. I’m in the process of confronting some of them still, but now I know who I am, and that makes all the difference.

M and I are very low-key friends now– she’s visited occasionally, and we’d text. We seem to talk less every year, and that’s okay. My crush on her lasted a long time before it finally faded and I moved on. When my shell started cracking and I began to rise from the ashes, she was one of the first people I came out to, and one of the first people to be unwaveringly encouraging and supportive of the real me. I still don’t know if she’s ever seen this movie, but the camaraderie it evokes will always make me think of her.

Last year I found C on Instagram.

…As it turns out, we’re both girls, after all. It seems so obvious now. I find myself thinking, a lot, about all the things I could have said to her.

I wonder if she still loves this movie.

I still do.