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Felicity's disguise

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In Which John Huston Rewrites Flannery O'Connor



Wise Blood
dir. John Huston
108 minutes

John Huston’s Wise Blood is a film without a memory. Early on, its protagonist, Hazel Motes — played like a lit matchstick by Brad Dourif — declares, “I’m going to the city, to Taulkinham. I don’t know nobody in Taulkinham.…I’m gonna do some things I ain’t never done before.” This line is one of the few accurate predictions in a story chock full of sham prophets, disappointments, and deceptions: once in the city, Motes will do an awful lot that he’s never done before. He will preach a new, nihilistic faith ("The Church of Truth without Christ Crucified"), be seduced by a preacher’s teenage daughter, kill a man, blind himself with lime, die. But the line might also serve a tag for the film itself, which operates in a shocked present tense, treating everything that happens as an event with neither precedent nor consequence. The individuals of Wise Blood are apparitions that speak to each other with intensity, even conviction, but little sense of history or motivation — as though everything they said were a non-sequitur.

Taulkinham is a purgatorial freak show, a livid surface upon which characters swirl and react, but do not interact. There is a sense of history that flecks around its edges, but the prevailing impression is that Taulkinham is a place where everyone flares into being and diminishes without leaving a mark. Even Motes’s death comes lightly, falling with barely a shiver at the end of the film.

This is in stark contrast to Flannery O’Connor’s novel, a grotesque, comic allegory that has its protagonist play Catholic saint to an audience of Southern Protestants. Satiric and wicked as the book can be, its primary impulse is to show the forces pushing Hazel Motes ineluctably toward devotion, no matter how stridently he renounces his belief. O’Connor famously describes Jesus moving “from tree to tree in the back of [Hazel’s] mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark….” The association of faith and darkness here clearly prefigures Motes’s self-blinding, but more important are the correspondences this image draws between interiority, history, belief and space. Jesus resides inside Hazel, but also behind him; to give himself to faith is to turn around and step backward — into himself, his past, the faith that abides within him, however furiously he disowns it.

Huston’s film makes no attempt to evoke Motes’ interiority. The chief difference between the book and the movie is the obvious one: the novel deals in depth, the film with surfaces. Huston takes this basic difference and applies pressure to it, forcing his adaptation into a subtle but thorough-going subversion of its source material, and bringing it in line with the lost-man movies of 1970s existential American cinema: Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, etc. Wise Blood is a novel that asks us to plunge inside and back in order to find meaning, but it is a film that wants us to glide along its surface and discover that nothing lies inside.

This distinction is easy to miss, since the events depicted in the movie scarcely diverge from those in the book. In the essay accompanying the Criterion release of Wise Blood, Francine Prose sounds what has become the common note about the film: "In spite of himself, he had made a film about a Christian in spite of himself, groping his way toward redemption." As an avowed (one might say cranky) atheist, Huston was not the obvious interpreter of O’Connor’s novel. He signed on to the project only after producer Michael Fitzgerald (a devout Catholic and the son of O’Connor’s literary executor, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald) had raised all the money to fund it. Huston then proceeded to shoot the movie with a kind of sour-pussed blindness to the source material, apparently under the impression that he was filming a cross between Don Quixote and Green Acres. In Huston’s vision, the troubled young man at the center of the story is the victim throughout of derangement, a madness planted in him by his holy fanatic grandfather (portrayed, almost too suggestively, by Huston himself). And this plays out as a zany satire of the zealous South, in which Motes renounces Jesus to preach the Church of Truth without Christ Crucified, but relents in the final act, committing acts of self-mutilation in the name of asceticism, and passing, one guesses, at last into unclouded oblivion.

Huston had envisioned these sequences as the film’s last belch in the face of religion, an acrid joke exposing the absurdity of belief. In his view, by the end of the film, Motes’s mental disease has finally aligned itself with the notion that humanity’s debt of sin must be settled in self-sacrifice. He dies not so much a saint as a sucker. But the punchline, as Prose notes, is that these scenes refuse to unfold this way. No matter how tawdry, there is a dignity, a resolve, to Motes’s death, and here even Huston ends up a convert: "According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s fate persuaded Huston that at 'the end of the film, Jesus wins.'"

What the above story really underlines is how unusually faithful the film is to the novel’s broad story and many particulars. This probably has something to do with its origin as a sort of Fitzgerald family project: after securing the rights to the book from his father, Michael Fitzgerald hired his brother, Benedict, to write the script. Their mother, Sally, handled set and costume design. The Fitzgeralds had known O’Connor personally (Sally Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing O’Connor’s biography when Flannery died), and conceived the film out of respect for her work. Perhaps as a consequence of their fidelity, the chronology of the movie matches that of the novel almost exactly, and virtually all of its dialogue is a word-for-word transplant grafted directly from the page to the screen. Poetic license seems never to have occurred to the Fitzgerald brothers. The differences in plot and talk amount to a few demure compressions.

But the script’s exceptional devotion to its source material is the wrong yardstick by which to measure Wise Blood. Although the story of Huston’s begrudging "conversion" draws a neat ironic squiggle for the film’s footnotes, it underplays the degree to which he carries O’Connor’s plot to a very different existential conclusion. Jesus may “win,” but only in Hazel Motes’s mind, and Huston is committed never to let us in there.

Take, for example, a scene near the very beginning of the film, in which Motes stumbles through a dilapidated farmhouse before heading off to Taulkinham. The house is more than just a shambles: it’s post-apocalyptic, a welt on the landscape. Its walls are singed, soaked, splintered, spooked. Its décor makes a monument to disrepair. What happened here? The film gives no indication; nor does it go out of its way to relate Hazel to this building by way of any expository detail. This is the closest that the film will come to giving Hazel a home, and, even here, it seems perversely bent on denying him a biographical connection with it.

Hazel stumbles around, still wearing his army uniform (another biographical tease, since the war he’s returned from will never be named) and finally scribbles a note on a piece of furniture: “This shiffer robe belongs to Hazel Motes. Do not steal it or you will be hunted down AND KILLED.” Then he visits his grandfather’s tombstone, which sits crumbling out back. These are the only threads to tie this place to Hazel’s previous life — it’s no coincidence that both allude to death. Wise Blood is a film that wants to disavow its characters’ history, severing it like a diseased limb.

Contrast this to the same sequence in the book. O’Connor packs a short story’s worth of background detail into a few sentences: “There was nothing left in the house but the chifforobe in the kitchen. His mother had always slept in the kitchen and had her walnut chifforobe in there. She had given thirty dollars for it and hadn’t bought herself anything else big again.” O’Connor dives from backstory directly into Motes’s psyche, and through that into still deeper background: “He thought about the chifforobe in his half-sleep and decided his mother would rest easier in her grave, knowing it was guarded. If she came looking any time at night, she would see. He wondered if she walked at night and came there ever. She would come with that look in her face, unrested and looking, the same look he had seen through the crack of her coffin.”

When O’Connor handles this scene, only the thinnest membrane separates Hazel’s experience of his environment from contemplation and memory. In this respect, O’Connor’s Hazel has a properly Modernist mind. The Modernist consciousness always inhabits at least two places at once; sensation, thought, and memory are separate-but-inseparable facets of a single subjective experience. Its present is a pliant surface always giving to memory, while its external world holds the keys to its subjective interior, and vice-versa.

For O’Connor, this is more than a stylistic choice. Along with its close cousin, metaphor, she envisions the Modernist consciousness as fiction’s way of grappling with the problem of faith. And O’Connor’s faith is persistently troubled. Like Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor saw the believer’s mind as a site bedeviled by struggle, beset by civil war. In faith, the reasoning mind struggles, paradoxically, to ascertain that which is essentially mysterious, irrational. The devout writer’s job is to portray this struggle experientially.

O’Connor’s stylistic manifesto "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" declares, "if the writer believes that our life is and will remain mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself... The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted." A novelist interested in the mysterious (which, for O’Connor, always means the divine) must therefore write with a peculiar double-vision, seeing depth in every shallow thing.

The surface of this fiction will look strange, even grotesque, full of pocks, growths, and lapses. Once pressed, however, it will plunge the reader full-tilt into the mysterious, the lunatic divine. This type of novelist is "looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees."

In a way, the novel Wise Blood dramatizes the gradual convergence of these two points in the character of Hazel Motes. Motes' attempt to reject religion realizes itself as a zealous commitment to immediacy, to common sense. “I’m a member and a preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way,” he declares to an audience of disbelieving believers. “No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach!” Motes, ironically, is at his maddest when he preaches common sense.

In O’Connor’s spiritual model, any point of view that stops at what’s in front of it will apprehend only a distortion of the truth. To be down-to-earth is to go only halfway; the spiritual (and literary) perspective seeks the infinite through the immediate. This is a solitary, subjective conception of Christianity — to an outside observer, a person haunted by faith will look insane. Hazel Motes achieves authentic insight only after blinding himself, an act that estranges his few companions. "If there’s no bottom to your eyes," he tells his landlady just before death summons him, "you see more." Imagine a Don Quixote whose windmills are also real giants.

How does this spiritual ethos translate to the screen? It doesn’t. Not in Huston’s adaptation, at least. In Wise Blood, Huston takes every opportunity to suppress the novel’s manifestations of depth — history, interiority, spirituality. Taulkinham becomes a kind of amnesiac limbo for Hazel Motes and the other characters to float through, instead of the crucible of belief that it is in the book. This creates as an odd flattening effect, perhaps best seen in two of Huston’s more flamboyant stylistic decisions in the film.

Huston self-consciously blurs the period setting, retaining elements of O’Connor’s early 1950s, but confusing them with contemporary signifiers. He dresses the players in period garb, lets them speak in O’Connor’s voice (language so antiquated and stylized it’s bronzed), arranges a few key scenes around a mid-century movie premiere, and even rushes Motes into Taulkinham on a steam locomotive. But he makes no attempt to disguise the location shots of late-1970s Macon, GA, lets incidental characters (many of them local non-actors) wear contemporary clothing, and drives them all around in 60s- and 70s-era cars.

This lapse has a financial explanation: Fitzgerald simply could not raise enough money to set the whole film in the 50s. And the steam engine, according to Brad Dourif, was contracted at deep discount, and used in the film as a matter of convenience. But I think it is reasonable to guess that Huston reveled in the historic schizophrenia these compromises attain. By muddying its temporality, Huston severs the movie from a larger sense of historical context. Motes’s uniform, for example, pretty clearly denotes the Korean War in O’Connor’s novel, but Huston’s film transforms it into a question mark. Has Motes returned from Vietnam, Korea, Europe, or somewhere else?

The fuzzy periodization raises questions about the motivations and convictions of all the story’s characters. Both the novel and the film have a tendency to veer uncomfortably close to delighting in their portrayal of idiots run amok, but O’Connor’s book at least grounds them in a definite historical moment. The grifter tactics relied on by many of the characters, not to mention the stew of prophecy and belief in which Taulkinham seems mired, make one kind of sense if we imagine the film’s main characters were born at the height of the Depression. The characters seem odder, more singular and freakish, if we imagine that the film takes place in the late-70s, and that its characters grew up in the relatively more affluent 50s. (This does not even touch on the subject of race, which the film itself only glancingly notices, but whose Southern context is of course very different in 1950 than in 1979.)

Hazel’s relationship with Sabbath Lily Hawks is a good example of the strangeness the film’s undecided setting imposes on its characters. Sabbath Lily — wonderfully portrayed by Amy Wright as a kind of squirming, engorged naïf — is the teenage daughter of Asa Hawks, the sham preacher that Motes makes his first nemesis in Taulkinham. Sabbath Lily’s innocence never really comes into question. She makes it clear right away that she has designs on Hazel’s pants.

In a telling scene that marks the midpoint of the film, Sabbath Lily persuades Hazel to drive her into the woods, where she presumably intends to have her way with him. In the car, she delivers a long monologue that amounts to a calculated confession of her perversity. Wright plays this scene feisty and syrupy, leaving no doubt that she means the speech to be part of her seduction routine:

Do you read the papers? Well, there’s this woman in it named Mary Riddle that tells you what to do when you don’t know. I wrote her a letter and asked her what I was to do. I said, ‘Dear Mary, I am a bastard, and a bastard shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as we all know. But I have this personality that makes boys follow me. Do you think I should neck or not?...' Then she answered my letter in the paper. She said, ‘Dear Sabbath, Light necking is acceptable. But I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in life….’ Then I wrote another letter. I said, 'Dear Mary, What I really want to know is: Should I go the whole hog or not? That’s my real problem. I’m adjusted OK to the modern world.'

OK, but what constitutes the modern world for Sabbath Lily? Depending on which of the film’s period clues we choose to follow, she was either born between the wars or just before the Summer of Love. To be the bastard child of a preacher, to write the local paper with questions about the ethics of going “whole hog,” and to seduce a grown man — the level of scandal these transgressions imply depends on their degree of perceived sinfulness, and this is, in large part, a factor of historical circumstance. Huston’s decision to deprive these characters of historical context undercuts the story’s religious subtext. O’Connor is too lively a writer to let her characters sit on the page as pure allegorical symbols, but each of them certainly represents something: saint, sinner, temptress, innocent, lost soul. Released from their historical footholds, they have a harder time fitting snugly into these categories.

It is not that Huston portrays these characters as more plainly human, exactly. In fact, the contextual decoupling has the opposite effect, flattening the characters, making them seem sketchier, more conditional. There are times in which the movie seems like little more (or less) than a parade of freaks, and one has a difficult time imagining these people living lives outside the credits.

But this is part of the point: to ratchet up the ambiguity until the people onscreen appear phantasmic, unreal, unsettled. It is almost as though Huston, sensing the spiritual conceit of the novel and the script, retaliates, not by swinging the other way and producing a work of didactic realism, but instead by merely refusing to put his foot down. This would help explain the film’s smallest pleasure, its soundtrack, which alternates between a ponderous instrumental version of “The Tennessee Waltz” and zippy, zany original intrusions that seem designed to replace a laugh track. Even at its sweetest, the film’s score sidles in with remarkable self-consciousness (it is too loud, too sappy), never failing to draw attention to itself as a film score. The effect, once again, is to heighten contextual ambiguity. Are these real people? If so, why the swelling strings? Even if we take this to be an artificial story — what kind of story is it? Is it a philosophical film, a melodrama, or a boggy comedy? The soundtrack refuses to settle, always charging in and tossing its characters back into the air.

Even Wise Blood’s sole gesture to a definite past — its use of flashbacks — feels yanked from its grounding context. The flashbacks, which are candy-pink, as though seen through the eyelids, occur three or four times over the course of the film. Each time, they feel as startling and unprovoked as images from a dream. O’Connor uses her flashbacks both to provide basic exposition and to build Hazel’s interior, showing the continuity between his experience, thought, and memory. We learn about the tyranny of Hazel’s grandfather, the trauma of his mother’s death, the persistence of sexual temptation inside him, the shame and punishment he has endured as a result of sexual exploration. Though Huston’s images depict nearly all of this backstory, they do so in a manner somehow both abrupt and unexplanatory. They are shot at extreme angles through the pink glaze, and Huston muffles the audio, making it gauzy, dreamlike, inconclusive.

Like the score, the flashback sequences do more to disrupt the feeling of unity or wholeness than they do to create it. At best, they seem like shards of memory, which point to some past while at the same time illustrating its inaccessibility. There is something cynically comical about the fact that Huston casts himself as Hazel’s grandfather. He stands at the center of these memories, his finger outstretched in a scold, barring entry.

One of the odd repercussions of the film’s ambiguity is to draw attention to a theme that the novel’s religious preoccupation tends to overshadow: if identity is uncertain, then it is up for grabs. The novel wants to suggest the opposite. Hazel may try to deny Jesus, but he cannot shake the wild, ragged figure in the back of his mind. “Some preacher left his mark on you,” one character tells him, and this mark goes deep — Hazel’s fervent protestations lead him only to become what he already is.

Huston’s adaptation rejects this fatalism. Unrooted, contingent, these characters exist in a charged present that allows them to refashion themselves moment-by-moment. The novel drives Hazel toward a predestined end. The film, by contrast, stresses Hazel’s chameleon quality, allowing him to slide without much comment from guise to guise. Now he is a soldier, now he is a preacher-hater, now he’s preaching, now he’s a murderer, now an ascetic. Because the film does not concern itself with depth, none of these personas carries more weight than the others. If “Jesus wins” at the end of the film, this salvation does not feel like the culmination of a journey, but instead another of Hazel’s outfits. O’Connor’s Hazel Motes spends the novel orbiting a denied but central devotion; Huston’s Hazel spends the film adrift, and ends it lost.

Viewed in this light, Wise Blood looks less like religious allegory and more like an exploration of fluid, indeterminate identity. Asa Hawks enters the film a blind preacher, leaves it a sighted charlatan. A mummy from a museum finds itself christened the new Jesus, then adopted as Hazel and Sabbath Lily’s impromptu child.

We first see Ned Beatty — at his smarmy best as the singing, dancing, bonafide hustler Hoover Shoates — heaped at the edge of the frame like a rag soaked in gasoline. After watching Hazel preach and seeing dollar signs, Shoates quickly assumes the identity of a devotee, then just as quickly hardens into Motes’s arch-nemesis. After Hazel rebuffs his invitation to team up and shuck the townsfolk, Shoates finds a local drunk and refashions him — by way of a speedy costume change — into a prophet. And so on: these characters are always in flux, shedding their skins and adopting new identities as opportunity suits them. When they do betray a conviction, it seems impulsive and improvised. Sabbath Lily decides she is ready to run off with Hazel literally on sight: “I’m just crazy about him. I never seen a boy I like the looks of any better.” Watch the way she fusses in front of Motes, as though his very presence made her skin giggle. Huston is at no pains to motivate Sabbath Lily’s infatuation, to explain why she finds herself so suddenly besotted, to let this part of the performance be anything more than one-note. Motivations do not apply in Taulkinham. Awry and unmoored, these characters live in states of emotional non-sequitur.

No character inhabits his fluid identity better than Enoch Emery, an eighteen-year-old wanderer and mental child with a fascination for monkeys, mummies, and Hazel Motes. Enoch latches on to Hazel early in the film, and trails him with a canine loyalty, despite persistent slapping-down from his would-be friend. It is Enoch who introduces Hazel to the shrunken mummy on display in Taulkinham’s sleepy museum, then steals it in a misguided attempt to bring Motes the new Jesus he’s been preaching about (“all man, without blood to waste”). Enoch also witnesses Hazel’s introduction to Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily, and helps him track down where they live. But something strange happens two-thirds into the film. Enoch — up to now a sad, ardent follower — gets waylaid, his plotline branching from Hazel’s in distraction. What diverts his attention? A gorilla named Gonga — in truth, a man in a monkey suit, traveling from theater to theater to promote the latest matinee movie.

This plot thread is entirely independent of Hazel’s, and never reconnects. True, Enoch is still a hanger-on, but the object of his devotion has changed. After noticing a line of kids waiting outside a theater in runny-nosed anticipation, Enoch spies the gorilla, gets in line, tamely shakes his hand — then gets back into line and does it again, ultimately following the promotional van to four separate movie houses. By the final handshake, Gonga gets fed up and tells Enoch to go to Hell. Instead, the boy waits until nightfall, creeps onto the Gonga-mobile, bludgeons the performer, and gets into his suit. Enoch’s final scenes are spent as a gorilla on the loose, terrorizing the inhabitants of Taulkinham.

Silly as it is, Enoch’s story is worth deeper consideration. O’Connor makes Enoch something of a counterpart to Hazel, devoting a number of chapters to his point of view and investing him with the story’s eponymous power, “wise blood” (impulses behind which the boy sees a divine hand). Huston’s Enoch is both shallower and trickier. Because very little of the film takes Enoch’s point of view, he initially appears to be a tag-along minor character, no more central than Hoover Shoates, and certainly not as important as Asa Hawks or Sabbath Lily. Which is what makes the Gonga storyline so perplexing. Why would Huston suddenly give a minor character such a goofy subplot, this frivolous intercession into the main story’s climactic scenes? And — even odder — why, after Enoch has stolen the costume, does the film promptly and utterly forget about him? What might be mistaken for sloppy storytelling is actually Huston’s second major stylistic assault on O’Connor’s spiritual message.

Like Hazel, Enoch has drifted in from out of town, an alien among outcasts. “My daddy made me come,” he complains. “I ain’t but eighteen years old and he made me come and I don’t know nobody and nobody here will have nothin’ to do with me. They ain’t friendly.” This is another effect of the characters’ haphazard rootlessness, and what remains of O’Connor’s story when belief is stripped away — an abiding, unbridgeable loneliness. The word ‘friend’ sits in Enoch’s mouth like a sore. “People ain’t friendly here. You ain’t from here, but you ain’t friendly, neither! And you don’t know nobody, neither! I knew when I first seen you that you didn’t have nobody or nothing but Jesus!” Friendship, as a matter of fact, is an ulterior theme in both the book and the movie. It balances precariously alongside faith, a second and sometimes opposed yearning. The word suffers abuse from Hoover Shoates when he tries to jump on Hazel’s preaching: “Listen to me, friends. Before I met this prophet, here, I didn’t have a friend in this world. Do any of you know what it means not to have a friend in the world?” It makes sense that friendship would be the bait in Shoate’s lie, the word he uses to coax listeners into his fellowship, and so ensure his prophet’s profit.

In O’Connor’s vision, friendship represents a temptation that threatens to lure a person away from proper faith. This faith, after all, is a struggle carried out in solitude by the person who has “nobody or nothing but Jesus.” The authentic believer plunges away from external things toward a solitary, internal contemplation of mystery. Everything around him points back to himself, and, by way of himself, to God. Notice that Hazel’s attempts to reject faith take the form of public acts of communication (i.e., preaching), while his devotion at the end is such a lone experience that, in blinding himself, he shuts the visible world out completely. Friendship is the watchword of sham faith in Taulkinham. Social desires are diversions from belief’s stringent path.

What happens, then, when salvation is also taken off the table? Huston is left with a portrait of loneliness and isolation scaled up to encompass an entire town. This film is haunted by the friendless. No one connects. Hazel’s few moments of warmth occur in the arms Ms. Leora Watts — American cinema’s dullest, fattest prostitute — whose address he gets from a bathroom wall advertising “the FRIENLIEST bed in town.” Apart from this, there is hardly a smile shared between two characters in the entire film. Hazel and Sabbath Lily do commit some act of sex, but no affection seems to follow, at least on Hazel’s part. Sabbath Lily and her father represent the story’s sole kin relationship, but their bond, too, is one of opportunity and accident rather than loyalty or love; Asa curtly rids himself of his daughter as soon as Hazel comes into the picture. And, though Hazel’s landlady proposes marriage to him near the film’s end, she does so in a naked spasm of despair: “I got a place for you in my heart, Mr. Motes. I don’t want anything but to help you, and if we don’t help each other, there’s nobody to help us. Nobody. The world’s a empty place, Mr. Motes!” Hazel responds with what must be the ultimate rejection. He runs away without a word, collapses, dies.

O’Connor’s novel opposes companionship and faith, seeing salvation in the latter and diversion — even fraud — in the former. Huston’s film finds little hope in religion, but no greater hope in friendship. Belief on O’Connor’s terms is never really an option since these characters have no interior — at least none that Huston lets us see. But friendship is equally untenable.

Huston wants us to look at Hazel and Sabbath Lily as two dead ends, each representing an aborted attempt at escape from loneliness. Hazel tries faith, and seems committed enough. However, if Jesus does win, what are the terms of the victory? Hazel forsakes company, speech, sight, and eventually life. In O’Connor’s arid landscape, this gives him a proper religious orientation. But in a world where only surfaces matter, there is little to suggest that Hazel has not given up everything. Take a look at Hazel’s face after his blinding, when he is able at last to look inside himself without distraction. Here is what the interior looks like in Huston’s world of surfaces: a blank screen. It is no accident that the first shot of Hazel after his collapse is a fake-out meant to make us believe he is dead. Turned toward a vacant interior, there’s little difference between death and life.

But Sabbath Lily fares no better. Huston and Wright transform the character from something of a hussy to a lively, lonely, libidinous young woman aching to connect. Undeniably, the character is both wild and vulgar, but Wright plays her with a sadness, too. She does seem genuinely to want to be with Hazel, and virtually all her screen time is spent trying to reach out to him, getting nothing in return. And her devastation when she discovers Hazel’s self-mutilation is visceral, horrifying. This is not merely someone who has stumbled into a scene of grotesque violence. It is also a person who has had her fantasy of companionship graphically exposed as a lie. In Huston’s Taulkinham, both faith and friendship are false prophecies. The characters are trapped in isolation: they cannot turn inward, and they cannot turn to each other.

Enoch Emery overcomes this apparent dilemma by turning into something else. Whereas he spends the majority of the film, like Sabbath Lily, desperately trying to connect with Hazel, his last scenes reel out in radical isolation. As a movie monster come to life, he is in a sense the ridiculous opposite of a preacher. A street preacher seeks to draw people toward him; Enoch’s final montage follows the gorilla as he frightens people away. In his last shot, he sits on a park bench alone, staring expressionlessly ahead as the camera zooms in.

There is a critical distinction to be drawn between Hazel’s blank face after the blinding and Enoch’s gorilla mask, though both lack expression. Hazel diminishes himself as the end of his story closes in: he sacrifices his vision, digs into his flesh with barbed wire, stops eating, and, of course, eventually gives up even the ghost. By gouging into the surface of his character, Hazel exposes the void within. By contrast, Enoch’s transformation is one of addition, or translation: he slides over to a new identity. Enoch has always been one for dress-up; before heading to the museum to steal the mummy, he spends several minutes in front of the mirror, arranging the goofy wig and mustache that make up his “disguise.” By the end of the film, he has fully embraced his predilection for shifting identity. The final shot of Enoch/Gonga’s unreadable face shows a character who has accepted his nature as a creature of surfaces.

It is possible that Enoch is Huston’s central character — a grim cartoon meant to illustrate the thinness and absurdity of Taulkinham. One imagines him staying in the costume for a while, trading it in when another becomes available — all the while alone, all the while adrift. Enoch Emery represents cynical conclusion that Huston’s reading of Wise Blood eventually comes to. Conviction is a dead end: the pursuits of faith and companionship both lead to desolation. The only alternative is to give oneself to the current, drifting alone and anonymous. By embracing flatness, fluidity and the rejection of context, Enoch illustrates, not the way out of Taulkinham, but the correct way to stay inside.

Spencer T. Campbell is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

"One Way" - Rose Cousins (mp3)

"Go First" - Rose Cousins (mp3)

The new album from Rose Cousins is called We Have Made A Spark.


In Which We Knot Our Laces And Polish Our Shoes



When I was still new to Brighton Beach, a local gave me a three-word appraisal of the neighborhood: cranky, filthy, and smelly. He was right, at least, about the wind whipping the trash down the street and the pervasive foul smell — like a garbage day in July but year-round. As for the cranky, I knew I couldn’t judge: I brought my own share of moodiness to this pocket of Brooklyn each day.

The neighborhood that had a century ago been a kind of resort town for Manhattan’s bourgeoisie was, by the time I arrived there, a post-Soviet colony. High rises, socialist-inspired in their sheer scale, loomed over the boardwalk where portly men in gold chains lounged shirtless, gossiping in emphatic Russian. The neighborhood’s bodegas and produce stores, which proffered an endless bounty of snacks, were run by Latino and Korean immigrants. But everything else was Russian. The news kiosks on the street sold outdated copies of Kommersant, Pravda and Russian Cosmo. Neon signs in store windows advertised Apteka instead of Pharmacy or Mobilniy instead of Cell Phones. The ATMs at the American bank where I deposited my paychecks were programmed in Russian. Babushkas hawked appetizing pirozhki on the street in some illicit permit- free arrangement, and the grocery stores sold entire kegs of Baltika beer. Even the sushi restaurants had Russian-speaking staff.

When people stopped to ask for directions on the street, they typically did so in Russian. On the days when I was exhausted from speaking and writing in Russian, in what I thought of as my distant second language, and ready to rush back to the English-speaking part of Brooklyn where I lived, I found myself pushing all ingrained political correctness aside. This is America! I would think, and go on to offer directions in Russian just the same.


Like so many other regrettable things procured this century, I found my first real job on Craigslist. I was three weeks out of college when I submitted my resume to a retail chain in Brooklyn seeking a translator. A few days later, a man named Nikolai called and invited me in for an interview. We made arrangements, and then in the moment between our goodbyes and the click of the receiver I heard him say, a little nervously, “You do speak Russian, right?” “In principle,” I said, which was one of the very first things I ever learned to say in the language, from a Muscovite teacher familiar with how Russian negotiations worked. My interview with the company was brief, and I could tell almost immediately that I would be hired. I was led to an office behind a toy store and installed in front of a computer with 10 sample translations to complete. When that was done, I was escorted back out to the store where a series of people speaking rapid-fire Russian stopped to examine me. Standing in the Russians’ collective gaze, I suddenly became aware of how I appeared to them: frizzy Sephardic hair untamable, shoes scuffed, and inexperience manifest in nervous gestures. I looked young and unsure of myself, and I cannot say that I was trying hard not to. Later on, when I got the job and started seeing them every day, I would find myself doing things that only fortified that impression.

I did so because I quickly saw that much of my success among the Russians was inextricably linked to a kind of pitying sympathy they had for me, a representative of the culture they were both obligated to assimilate to and deeply uncomfortable with. I could detect the ways in which bits of my personal life, parlayed in casual conversation, distressed them: that I lived far away from my parents, by choice and not by virtue of money or visa restrictions; that I often skipped lunch, because I was both forgetful and broke; and that I dressed in used clothes. Their reaction to my wardrobe, in particular, frustrated and amused me as much as the fact of it did them. In my part of Brooklyn, it was considered “vintage,” but in Brighton it was embarrassing.

Over the course of my daily commute, I watched the train empty of people who spoke English and fill up with those who did not: men in pointy shoes negotiating business deals in Russian, bundled-up babushkas clucking at their bilingual grandkids, women my age texting intently in Cyrillic. I always arrived early enough to go to the Starbucks tucked between a nail salon and a bodega on Brighton Beach Avenue, not because I particularly liked the coffee but because it was my last contact with American New York for eight hours. It was the messiest Starbucks I had ever been to, as though the rush of Russians ordering drinks in their native language — bolsohi, sredniy, malenkiy instead of tall, grande, venti—overwhelmed the non-Russian staff’s capacities (and as my job often overwhelmed mine, I empathized). Sugar granules trailed across the counters, cups spilled out of the trash, and the fetor of the street seemed to push in through the closed windows. A pre-work moroseness was palpable.

Early one morning, a crowd of us stood surveying a lone banana on the floor. It had been abandoned there and smooshed underfoot, oozing out of its peel unpleasantly. “Who would leave a banana there like that?” someone asked sadly in heavily accented English. “Who wouldn’t?” someone replied. “This is Brighton Beach.”


When you spend time in an environment that is totally foreign, you become accustomed to undergoing a series of disquieting personal transformations, of experiencing life as someone different than you are at home. For most people, this happens when they travel abroad. For a year and then some, it happened to me every day, without even leaving my own borough. It wasn’t especially far from where I lived, but when I arrived in Brighton Beach every morning, even the air seemed different – muskier, heavier, as if the concentration of Slavic intensity formed a cloud over the streets.

And I was different there, too. An outfit that had seemed perfectly acceptable an hour before looked different, even to me, when I got off the B train. But the feeling ran deeper than that. For a while I tried reading ambitious books during my commute, starting with War and Peace, but the metamorphosis that occurred when I shut the book and got off the train – turning from someone highly literate into someone who struggled to spit out a sentence – was so startling that I eventually stopped reading and just stared straight ahead, alone with my English thoughts as the train inched toward a place that called itself, aptly, Little Russia.

My entire self-perception changed as soon as I got there, and the person I thought I was – the person I intended to be – evaded me. Brighton Beach was like a funhouse mirror I was forced to stand in front of daily: the reflection of myself that I encountered there was somewhat obfuscated, but still recognizably me—just familiar enough for the effect to be disconcerting.

Even my name was different during working hours. When I checked for the previous day’s mail at home every morning, the name on the envelope was Lucy Morris, but when I arrived in Brighton Beach an hour later, my name was Lusya Morrris, with a slack-jawed “ya” and an “R” that made waves.

All the identifiers attached to me in the rest of my life  a writer, a runner, an avid reader disappeared when I arrived there. Instead, what defined me was that I was a born-and-raised American. All day, that fact seemed to hover around me, as though a caption floated above my head everywhere I went in the neighborhood, reading, cartoon-like: Amerikanka.


Although I wasn’t much for Soviet mythology and was too young to share the suspicions of the Cold War generation, there were often days that first summer when I felt like a spy, discretely observing the rites and rituals of a culture that was not my own, trying to belong as best I could for the sake of professional appearances at the expense of my personal comfort.

Pavel, a security guard at the store where I worked, liked to say that I was planning to work for the CIA one day, as though my job translating instructions to Russian Monopoly (“Be the boss who dictates the rules!” read the tagline) was a natural precursor to becoming a secret agent. Sometimes, out of nowhere, he would look at me fondly and declare, “Special Agent Lusya Morrrrris!” as though using his official English voice would make it true.

In reality, my work was nothing that would prepare me for a political career. I translated copy for each of the products our stores sold, which was posted on aggressively neon websites and supposedly featured in advertisements on public busses servicing Russian areas of New York, but since my time in these places was limited, I never actually saw them.

Every morning, a new series of Russian descriptions appeared in text boxes on the screen in front of me, and I dutifully turned them into English: descriptions of nesting dolls painted to look like American presidents (“Even Obama!!”), Cheburashka dolls that chirped unintelligible rhymes in Russian, summaries of highly Slavic parenting guides (How to Treat Your Child’s Illnesses with Honey), Gzhel porcelain teacups, and felt slippers with supposed medicinal properties. Since it was a struggle for my employers to read English, they almost never checked my work. This meant that they sometimes seemed to forget why I was there or what I was doing. They would stand by my desk and appraise me sometimes, or peer over my shoulder to see what I was typing, but they rarely asked me direct questions, and so, in turn, I rarely asked them anything either. It was as though taking a vocal interest in each other would upset the balance of mutual apathy.

But over time, in incidental bits of conversation, I gleaned some information about the company. It had been founded 15 years earlier, at an opportune moment when the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a massive influx of immigrants to New York. The founder, an enterprising and sartorially daring woman named Sasha who had studied to be an actress back in Moscow, had expanded her single store into a six-location chain with four websites. In the process, she’d managed to drive out most of the charming independent Brighton Beach bookstores and gift shops of the nineties, the kinds of places where Manhattan academics went to buy Russian literature in the original from elderly émigrés.

Sasha’s business strategies were none other than American. She read Jack Welch management books in Russian translation and attended expensive business seminars, hung motivational posters in her office and cribbed nondisclosure contracts from the Internet (I knew they were stolen, because no one at the company besides me had the English skills necessary to write them). She had scrolling LED signage installed in the store windows, ran advertisements with telegenic children on Russian TV, and started selling tchotchkes and translations of the Shopaholic books in favor of Dostoevsky.

But in spite of the American business pomp, in other ways, the company remained rigidly Russian. I was the first non-immigrant that the company had ever hired. Foreign holidays like International Women’s Day were observed—my male boss delivered a red rose to each woman in the office, even, to my surprise, to American me—and most of all, the business maintained a strong sense of family. That familial feel, which was present in all of my interactions with the Russians, was somehow comforting and foreboding at once, the way that most large families you don’t belong to can be.

Once, shortly before I left, I asked Natasha for a raise. With the business savvy of a typical American boss, she stalled. But then she said, “I can lend you some money if you need it.”


By September, what had originally been a part-time job had expanded in almost imperceptible half-hour increments into full-time work. It seemed to go dark and windy especially early in our corner of Brooklyn, positioned as we were just a block from the water. Accordingly, the seasonal displays changed and a staff of what seemed like dozens went hard at work on the store windows, bringing me signs to proofread from time to time (“Stay cozy with our handmade knit shawls!”). An outrageously sized television was placed in the store windows, broadcasting video advertisements with a series of blonde, unsmiling, high-cheekboned Slavic women in festive boa-trimmed silver costumes. The sound on the ads was muted in deference to some Brighton Beach noise ordinance, and in the absence of sound the women seemed to move their facial muscles in double time, doing their best to entice you into the store without emitting a peep.

photo by Paul Lowry

By then, the novel excitement had worn off, and I had identified the cost of working in another world all day: a sense of deep loneliness, worsened for the fact that I was fairly socially engaged outside of Brighton Beach. I have friends, I sometimes had the urge to tell the people who gathered for intimate conversation around me while I sat attempting to appear occupied rather than excluded. There are people who actually like having conversations with me.

And yet I was hesitant to start conversations myself. I could speak with my coworkers competently, but I was shy on account of my rapidly deteriorating grammar and the space between each word I required in order to locate the next one. I wasn’t sure who dreaded the time it took for me to utter a competent sentence more: my Russian conversation partners or me. My reading and written Russian were the best they had ever been, but my expectations that working among Russian speakers would keep my spoken language sharp proved unrealistic. The official office language was the pidgin Russian of Brighton Beach, a peculiar blend of accents owing to the neighborhood’s mix of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Kazakhs, for whom Russian was often a second language (and since it was mine too, these were the coworkers with whom I got along best).

I developed the immigrant habit of slipping into English for a word or two in the middle of a Russian sentence, but through placement and accent letting it take on a sound of its own, “sendvich,” instead of “sandwich.” And with the sense of embarrassment that often accompanied my workplace exchanges, I once tried to explain away a minor cold by saying I was “under the weather,” only I couldn’t think of a Russian idiomatic equivalent so I translated it literally: preposition, noun, pod pogodoi. I was met with a look of bewilderment and some trepidation, as though I had decided to recite absurdist poetry impromptu.

It was this language barrier, born of the discomfort all parties felt speaking their non-native language, that plagued me most. It not only distanced me from my coworkers, but alienated me from my own sense of self. My identity as a talkative, highly verbal person was miles away from the reserved person I was in Brighton Beach, speaking as little as possible, depending instead upon knowing smiles and submissive nods.

It made me constantly suspicious that I was somehow the butt of a joke I couldn’t understand, and I was also constantly afflicted with a low-grade sensation that I was somehow on display. For a long time, I assumed this was because my office doubled as the break room, and people passed in and out all day with their lunches, tea, and small talk. Later on, once I left, I could see that there was another less visible source for this sense of vulnerability. As the token American, I was something of a curiosity. I was responsible for another role that I had not anticipated or consciously signed on for, something I couldn’t list on my resume or really use anywhere else: the duty of explaining, when conversation did extend my way, what life was like for me, the only American, and as the implication seemed to be, by extension for all Americans.

“What do you eat if you don’t eat meat?” my coworkers crowded around to ask when they found out I was a vegetarian. “How come you don’t live with your parents?” I was asked to account for certain aspects of my culture that I wasn’t exactly clear on myself. “What is the deal with Lady Gaga?” they wanted to know, or, “What does Limp Bizkit mean?” They were puzzled that I snacked on dried fruit and nuts, which I had been taught was healthy. “What are you, Lusya?” they asked, “A squirrel?”

But even more tiring was the struggle to translate my workday experiences and exchanges into ones that my friends, the ones working nonprofit and restaurant jobs back in English-speaking New York, would understand. Eventually, it was this second shift that weighed on me, that I couldn’t, for instance, solicit someone’s take on a remark my boss had made without translating it first. I knew this was good for my language skills, would maybe lead to better paying work someday, but I was also a little bit miserable.


I began surveying my colleagues, searching for faces I might turn into friends. Everyone was older and didn’t directly address me much, especially the women, so I looked to the men. We were a motley crew, crammed into a low-ceilinged office with yellowing walls. As I slowly learned about my colleagues’ disparate backgrounds— technical degrees, factory work, teaching college — it became clear that often the only thing they had in common was their shared Soviet roots and subsequent immigrant experience, which was still more than I had in common with them.

There was Igor, who occasionally asked my opinion, made good use of his limited English to cobble together Dick Cheney jokes, and seemed more educated and worldly than the others. He had a kind-faced friend named Alyosha, a Gogolian figure with an oversized overcoat and gut, a sparkle of gold teeth, and the air of a civil servant about him. And there was Anastasia, the kind of Russian woman that inspired the folktale, “The Princess Who Never Smiled” — emblematic of the grimness of Russian literature that had initially drawn me to the culture years earlier. The three of them were – for the time – the best of friends. But I was confident that if only I could work up the courage to offer some sentences, I would be able to ingratiate myself. In the kind of weirdly mundane fantasy life that often accompanies periods of loneliness, I imagined going on cigarette breaks with them – even though I was not a smoker – or joining them for lunchtime pierogies at the Café Arbat.

But most often, I worked with Lyonya. He had hooded eyes, sharp Slavic features and skin so pale it all conspired to make him look exotic, a hint of the Mongol about him. By virtue of him being the person I sat nearest to, I supposed he was my closest friend, but it was clear that he did not share this belief.

Lyonya had been the underdog of the office before I arrived, and once I came, instead of conspiring with me, he turned on me. He specialized in a kind of undermining that never reflected all that well on him. He got picked on for not eating meat, something he was fiercely proud of in the face of office jesters who urged, “Just a little bit of hotdog, it’s barely meat!” But when he found out I'd been a vegetarian for fifteen years, he immediately distanced himself from his principles. “Well, at least I eat fish,” he said.


Winter in Brighton Beach was heralded by the installation of a shelf by the door, where the Russians traded in their boots for heels and polished loafers when they arrived each morning. Meanwhile, my poorly-made leather boots were falling apart, revealing the sole to be little more than a layer of cardboard and peeling rubber. “Nice shoes,” Lyonya snickered. “Are those new?” Since Orthodox Christmas comes on the heels of New Year’s in early January, our holiday rush arrived late. When I asked for vacation, my boss asked when exactly “American Christmas” was. Again I was reminded of the gulf between the worlds I lived and worked in: even the calendar was different.

Nonetheless, I remained. In the tiny, fluorescent-lit office where I spent my days, the thermostat did not ascend past 60 degrees. Lyonya rubbed his hands together for warmth over his keyboard. I sat with my feet pressed against the cozy computer hard drives. We all wore hats and nursed hot beverages. The click of the electric kettle, or chainik, signifying that the water had reached a boil was the sound of the season, our own kind of carol.

The midwinter months dragged on: I seemed to always have my hands on the keys and eyes on the screen while the Russians passed around me. They bustled and lurked, yelled maddeningly and conspired in whispers, they laughed and they ate. An employee somehow cut her foot on glass one day. “Where’s the vodka?” asked the coworker tasked with bandaging her up and calming her down.

Another day, a different girl cut her hand. “Why isn't life easier?'” she wondered through tears, holding her hand under running water. “Come on,” said another Russian impatiently. “Who would want to live an easy life?” When they turned to me for my confirmation, I conceded that this was a fair point but I was not  and still am not  sure that it is.

The office was small and windowless and closed to the natural elements, but it hummed and swelled with philosophical questions and spiritual contemplations, with mixed-language idioms and jokes. On break one afternoon, I sipped my coffee and evaluated the state of my nails. “Lusya,” said a woman I was certain I had never been formally introduced to. “What are you thinking about so seriously?” Moved by the Russian spirit of things, I answered with seriousness, “Life.” The woman, who was somewhat brusque, flashed her gold teeth at me in approval.

Over lunch, conversations of similar import commenced. Was the lychee fruit related to the leech? Was couscous the American kasha? Was being married on a computer game like The Sims or Second Life really so different from being married in real life? (Pavel assured me it was not.) Were we all just controlled by aliens? Where could you find a decent banya in this town, one where you were allowed to sip beer while you steamed? These questions were not of real consequence to me in my American life, but I found I increasingly wanted to know the answers just the same. I was still quiet, but I listened and understood more.


My Amerikanka status meant I was exempted from the Friday morning staff meetings even the janitors were required to participate in, and no one offered me the USSR t-shirt that served as the informal company uniform. I was glad to be free of these obligations, but it added to my sense of being an outsider, which I felt was obscurely good for my character but which also made me constantly uncomfortable.

There was also a strict militancy to the environment that frightened me, as the product of a highly forgiving value system. My boss, with his stern, unsmiling tones and crisp army green suits terrified me; I sometimes actually shook when he approached. On bad days, Russian sounded Germanic to me in its harshness, all hacked up “kh” sounds and endlessly crescendoing intonation as speakers inched toward their point—a climax I dreaded, as it meant I’d have to respond. A couple coworkers confided that they had learned English by playing World of Warcraft and watching movies like The Godfather. This was evident in both their vocabulary and odd sense of chivalry. One day, the women were locked out of the office so that the men could catch a mouse that had been spotted near my desk. “Lusya,” my boss commanded. “Stand back. There will be blood.”

In such moments of high drama, I forgot that the loud talk of my Russian world concealed the fact that there were actually few solid rules, far fewer, really, than in the progressive part of Brooklyn where I lived. The law of Brighton Beach was that there wasn’t one: you could do whatever you wanted, more or less; a hangover or a desire to go to the beach was, after an unconvincing sigh or mild berating, a perfectly legitimate reason not to come to work. Another advantage of life among Russians, as any reader of their literature knows, is that Russians are very good at understanding chaos, the dramatics of love and family, and personal crises. Those abound in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in particular, and that spring, when what should have been an amicable breakup ballooned into precisely one of these kinds of crises for me, I found that that Russian sensitivity to chaos was just as evident in modern life.

Returning to New York to confront the ruins of my relationship after a weeklong vacation I’d taken to distract myself from it, I decided I had to leave again immediately. I was prepared to work off-site. “Telecommuting,” I told them as if I myself had attended one of Natasha’s American business seminars, “It’s the cutting edge in American management.” But I was also prepared for the likelihood that I could be fired, and in the chaos of the moment, this foolishly did not scare me. But to my surprise, instead of chastising me, the Russians swung into action, wading into my mysterious American world with advice to restore order. When I announced that I was moving in with three male roommates in a yet-to-be gentrified neighborhood, I could actually hear people suck in their breath. Several people suggested I move to Brighton Beach instead. “Don’t be ridiculous,” my boss said after demanding to know how much rent at my new place was. “We’ll find you a nice studio here for $500. You walk to work. You won’t even need a Metrocard.”


I didn’t move to Brighton Beach, but for a while after that, moved by a newfound interest in me, my boss decided to try convincing me to work longer hours, ideally ten hours a day, six days a week. This was, to be fair, the schedule the Russian immigrants worked. But for various reasons, chief among them my meager pay and a desire to have some semblance of a social life, I resisted. I spent a week refusing to submit a new schedule. “Ten hours—it’s impossible,” I said, raising my voice on the last word, nevozmozhno, for emphasis. “I have classes, I have another job, I have things to do,” trying a new excuse every day in the hope that one would strike my boss as sufficiently convincing, but he wouldn’t relent. “Well, what’s wrong with nine and a half hours?” he asked with a sigh, as though I was depriving him of much more than a few hundred words about Dr. Spock books.

I was annoyed by our negotiations and so I fumed to a few sympathetic friends after work. During the day I found I was easily carried away by Russian moral meditation, but when I went home at night, I could be just as easily swayed by American indignation.

In quieter, introspective moments, I knew that something about hovering between these two worlds was an effective strategy for me, since I was not exactly required to fully participate in either one. Friends chalked up the trouble I had been having articulating myself lately to working in Russian all day, rather than my exhaustion from trying to find footing in a new home and routine. The Russians attributed my ineloquence and oddities, the way I showed up for work unkempt with circles beneath my eyes, to the inexplicable intricacies of being American. “Oh, Lusya,” they sometimes said as they looked at me, shaking their heads as if my very presence confounded them, but it always felt more respectful than mean.

In fact, the only things I then felt confident of – and in some sense responsible for – were the words I translated, a source of comfort I could not locate in any other part of my life. At that time I was translating descriptions of textbooks, and the words I dealt with were ones like razvitiye (development) and voobrazheniye (imagination), words I rarely needed in conversation but to which I nonetheless felt intimately connected—obliged to show up and render them in English, turning the Russian sounds over silently in my mouth like they were the one thing of which I was certain.


By the time that transitory period was over, the Russians seemed more comfortable with me, as though the discovery of my romantic problems was something with which they could finally identify, something shared and universal. The men, a little more flirtatious since knowing I had become single, started inquiring about my beer of choice and the women, who occasionally asked me to analyze text messages from American love interests, also asked to borrow ten bucks here and there. I knew I was more or less part of this sprawling Slavic family—a distant cousin maybe, but one they were nonetheless happy to see.

They enjoyed sharing with me their vast repertoire of Jew jokes, not maliciously, just as though they believed that as a Jew I might especially understand and relate to them. When I could not always bring myself to laugh uproariously, they thought I might not understand. “You see,” Pavel explained with patience, “It’s funny because there is a belief that the Jewish people are very stupid and greedy.” After a pause during which I tried to let my silence convey my disapproval, he asked breezily if “Hava Nagila” was my favorite song.

Around that time, my officemate Lyonya was replaced by Vanya, who looked about fifteen but was actually, at twenty-two, exactly my age. There were a lot of strange things about Vanya, but perhaps the strangest one of all is that he quickly became my closest confidant. We were odd kinds of foils for each other during those months: almost never in the same mood or mental place, but somehow bonded together during the forty hours we spent each week in chairs side by side. He got into a new relationship the same week I ended one. “Girl,” I heard him tell his beloved Sasha over the phone, “you want me to bring a bottle of champagne tonight? Tell you what: I’ll bring two.” I ground my teeth and rolled my eyes at his naivety. But then, as the days grew long and warm, I found myself starting a new relationship just as Vanya called his off. “All these Brighton girls,” he complained, “They just wanna get married.” Again I rolled my eyes, but this time, it was at what I thought was his excessive cynicism.

The fact that Vanya had no years on me did not stop him from dispensing all kinds of advice. “Listen,” he began one day, apropos of nothing in particular. “All I’m saying is that a person’s education is never over — and I’m not talking about school.” And with all the wisdom garnered in his twenty-plus lengthy years: “Every problem in life can be solved with math except for women.” I could not really fathom what he meant by this, and math was not exactly my strong suit, but I nodded in agreement. He took particular joy in sharing, unsolicited, his courtship experience, with plenty of pointed pauses, almost as if he expected me to be taking notes. “When I turned nineteen,” he once began what I suspected would be a lengthy lecture, “I was just ready to settle down.”

In late April, Vanya embarked on a road trip to Coachella with a van full of other Brighton Beach Russians and returned with a new interest in jam bands and marijuana. He mulled over the idea of growing dreadlocks and made some mockups of the new look in Photoshop. I encouraged him to go for it, at least so the office attention to my hair, which the girls prodded me to straighten, might divert to him, but I was also fascinated by this turn of events. Vanya, who I had thought of as being entirely unlike me in his Russianness, would soon be indistinguishable from my own acoustic guitar playing stoner roommates. I was relieved to have a coworker with a shared set of cultural references, but I was also caught off guard. I was accustomed by now to being the only American, and my fixed status during working hours made it easier for me to experiment with new roles in the rest of my life. I could drink too much at night, go home with the wrong people, and spend too much on cab rides home in early morning hours, but when I showed up for work none of that mattered, I was simply the Amerikanka.

Early in the summer, Vanya and I started propping the office door open and the sunlight that flooded our space noticeably improved our spirits. I could now translate without thinking too hard, and instead my mind filled up with the details of new burgeoning relationships that seemed immensely significant, the kind I would be destined to remember for the rest of my life. In truth, I have already forgotten the details of those, can hardly even conjure up some of the faces. But Vanya — his tight curls, penchant for plum wine, and eclectic taste in music — remains as clear as ever.


In early June, one year into my stint in Brighton Beach, I decided I was going to quit my job and leave New York for a while. My latest entanglement was with someone far away and the thought of another city summer lost to office life filled me with dread. But every time I convinced myself that leaving was the best course of action, I was confronted by some feature of Russian life from which I was reluctant to walk away: the tradition of buying food for everyone else on one’s own birthday, occasional champagne afternoons, and heated discussions of everything from UFOs to Greek myths.

Which is why it took me two full months to quit. I began by ambitiously announcing I was moving to Asia, which was a vague plan I had for the following fall. “What are you going to do?” my boss asked me quizzically when I informed him of this. “Learn Chinese?” As if this was actually an insane thing to do, as if he never read the news and could not see that Chinese was now, far more than Russian, the language to be learning.

Soon he dismissed the idea entirely. “So you’re going to Israel,” he informed me with a bemused grin, as if this was the only country a Jew might think to go. “But when will you come back?” I told him with unnecessary defiance, out of some adolescent principle to prove that my ill-considered decision was the right one, that I was leaving for good. He smiled merrily and gave me a look of the kind I was then learning people give during the early stages of relationships, when they’re skirting genuine feeling. “We’ll see,” that look said.

photo by vige

By my final weeks in late July, New York had become unbearable, like it is every summer, and my usually peaceful commute turned rowdy as the B train filled up with teenagers en route to the beach. I counted the days until my departure anxiously, eager to escape. But as my last day approached, I found myself telling my new boyfriend, on a tipsy humid night, that I wished someone could say “Lusya” the way Russians do. He tried valiantly but I shook my head; it was in the softest of spaces between the “s” and “ya.”

I woke up some weekend mornings with Vanya’s favorite Pink Floyd song in my head, the one he used to play on repeat for hours at a time. I thought of the way we both confidently sang along to the line, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” as though either of us — immersed in our respective American and Russian worlds — had any knowledge of English ways at all.

My boss announced suddenly one day during my last week that I was “the best,” and I considered that boyfriends saying it never sounded as good as when he did, his “the” sounding more like “they” and the intonation of the second word rising out of his mouth like smoke. I wondered if I would ever work somewhere like this again. Some days I hoped I never would. Some days I couldn’t imagine anything else.


Unlike the straight tracks that lead to most subway stations in New York, the trains in Brighton Beach swing toward you around a sharp bend. The B trains are the older kind adorned with faded graffiti and out-of-date ads, and their approach always reminded me of the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, just down the boardwalk from my office. There is the sound of rickety wood tracks and a whoosh of air and the moment when the angle allows you to see both the conductor in the front car and the tail end of the last one simultaneously.

It’s not often that you see the start and end of trains, or of anything else really, all at once. I remember my interview on that muggy late May day, but I do not remember my first day on the job or even, more recently, my last one, in that case because there never really was one. My boss called a few weeks after I left New York to ask if I would work remotely, the telecommuting idea having apparently made an impression. A year later, when I left to go freelance, I just faded away; the Russians stopped offering me work at the same exact time I stopped asking for it, as if by unspoken mutual agreement. Though I had spent two years insisting I was distinctly different from the Russians, in the end, we found ourselves in sync.

What remains most clear to me now are the many hours — days in all — that I spent waiting for that B train to appear around the bend: in lots of rain and some shine, among beach girls in rompers and aging Russian men in unbuttoned shirts, and not infrequently, completely alone. I tried in vain to listen for waves from the elevated platform and saw sunsets over the high rises that looked straight out of the suburbs of Moscow. I sent text messages in Cyrillic by accident. I quaked in my shoes, dreading asking for vacation in a language I didn’t feel I understood, and smiled when it was granted to me freely—when I had to concede that the Russians were so much more generous than I ever suspected, for reasons that were mostly of my own manufacturing.

These visions of what I saw around me obscure exactly what happened to me in between: the person I was when I arrived unkempt on that late May afternoon, and the person I was by the time I left. Just as it is impossible to know how certain scars will heal, the indelible impressions a place and a people can leave become apparent only later. Occasionally, I still find myself wondering in certain situations what the Russians would advise me to do. As I knot my laces, I contemplate if it is time to polish my shoes, or, reaching into a bag of almonds, if nuts really are as healthy as Americans claim. And while I almost never have occasion to ride the B train anymore, there are moments when I think of doing it anyway: of just getting on and taking it straight to the end of the line to find out what I might see and who might be waiting  that now-lost Amerikanka version of myself, perhaps  when I emerge on the other end.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about living alone.

"Sedulous" - Sebastien Tellier (mp3)

"Cochon Ville" - Sebastien Tellier (mp3)

The new album from Sebastien Tellier is entitled My God Is Blue.


In Which We Fight From A Position Of Strength

Death by Rihanna


dir. Peter Berg
131 minutes

To comprehend all of Rihanna's dialogue in Peter Berg's Battleship is like sorting through the tendrils of 8th century Chinese poetry — so much is said in so little. After spending the first hour of the film uttering such bon mots as "Come on" or "Yes sir," she really opens up when she, along with the otherwise all-male crew of the John Paul Jones, witnesses the unmasking of the first alien species in recorded history. She opens her mouth as if to sigh, and then utters the prophetic words: "My dad said they'd come. He said, we ain't alone." 

Out of sheer boredom Peter Berg turns Battleship into a Levi-Straussian jumble of signs and signifiers. It's sort of what watching Mozart try to play Kelly Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All" on a harmonica would be like. Shortly after the arrival of an alien race sophisticated enough to reach Earth from another galaxy, Rihanna enters into a serious physical confrontation with the organism. Screenings of Battleship in specific metro areas will feature the accompanying Greimas semiotic square explaining the event:

Watching Rihanna take a bloody lip from a disrespectful alien-machine amalgam and trying to enjoy it is very difficult, perhaps on the level of trying to the explain the work of Levi-Strauss at West Point. It is doubly disturbing that the alien lets her go with only that much violence, as if it was meant to stand in for something more. To address the issue of domestic abuse and minority empowerment in a film adapted from a board game stands as one of the definitive artistic achievements of this decade, if not of all time.

Battleship begins when the ne'er-do-well younger brother of a Navy captain named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is immersed in a series of monumental fuckups, all bearing a loose but explicit relation to the catastrophic results of American military might over the past decades. First he falls over himself trying to steal a chicken burrito to impress an ungainly blonde woman (Brooklyn Decker); this tragically ends when he is tasered in a moment akin to the savage losses of the Iran-Contra debacle. Appropriately the first ship he serves on is named the Ronald Reagan.

it was down to Taylor Kitsch and Donald Signifier for the role

In the very next scene Alex Hopper launches a climactic penalty kick over the head of a triumphant Japanese goalkeeper who strangely speaks perfect English (the ethnic confusion is merely an allegory for American racism, of course). And so on. Even the name of the actor portraying the film's protagonist is a grotesque joke on the military industrial complex.

Alex Hopper and Brooklyn Decker fall in love despite his mistakes, and he plans to marry her once he receives the permission of her father, Admiral Dickson Shane (Liam Neeson). The casting of Liam Neeson implies so much in Battleship. Something has been Taken, other questions are Unknown, and the approximate state of U.S. military power is in all likelihood Obi Wan Kenobi. "You've got skills," Neeson tells Hopper, "but I have never seen a man waste them like you."

Admiral Shane, you're wanted at the wet bar

He is not the only one disappointed by the exertion of careless American military might. Alex Hopper's brother (Alexander Skarsgård) is routinely upset by the way that his little brother's machinations reflect on his career. "Who do I call to teach you humility?" Eric Northman screams at Hopper, and the camera sails 450 feet in the air in a meaningful nod to the fact that powerful Hollywood executives refused to cast Alexander Skarsgård as Thor. This grave mistake is compounded by the fact that Skarsgård dies about a half hour into the movie in a symbolic nod to Steven Seagal's death in Executive Decision, which would be an ideal subtitle for the Battleship sequel. With all this symbolic nodding it's a wonder Berg didn't accidentally snap his neck.

plane of praxis

The aliens' plan is to drop a bubble shield around the island of Hawai'i, where they can use a powerful satellite uplink to relay a message to their homeworld that Earth is ripe for conquest. Their timing could not be worse, as the Navy is currently performing a series of fully armed wargames with multiple battleships in the region. The aliens themselves resemble humans with long blonde goatees that make them look like Kid Rock and eyelids that blink horizontally.

With biped movement and a similar skeletal structure, the aliens are undoubtedly derived from human stock. Possibly they are human visitors from the future, in which case talk of "an extinction-level event" would be completely impossible. Presumably the aliens originate from an ocean planet, because they seem rather awkward moving around on land, equipped as they are in massive metal suits, and all their spacecrafts are designed to be operated in a large body of water. Maybe they just wanted to drop in for a swim. Since none of this is ever outright stated, the subtlety is shocking in a film with a budget this large.

authentic learning

In the end Alex Hopper earns a silver star and the commendation of an entire nation, even though the idea that ends up saving the planet is entirely the work of a Japanese commander. Berg's point is that the sheer amount of money we spend on armament and war is only remotely justifiable if we are suddenly invaded by aliens who would never even know of our existence if we had not specifically requested they come and attempt to conquer us. If you're travelling among the stars, please, never say where you're from.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the life of Victoria Woodhull. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

"If Nothing Lasts Forever" - The Soundtrack of Our Lives (mp3)

"You Are The Beginning" - The Soundtrack of Our Lives (mp3)

The new album from The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Throw It to the Universe, will be released on June 26th.