Mysterious Skin depicts how two people can handle the same traumatic childhood incident in radically different ways. The courses of the characters’ lives are shaped by this event, abruptly halted and forked irreparably, yet each heads in opposing directions.
Neil, the mischievous only child of a single mother, longs for attention. The star player of his Little League team, he’s somewhat confused when he’s singled out by his coach as an objection of affection, yet strangely honored, overjoyed that he finally feels loved by someone. His teammate, Brian, is a quiet, owlish boy whose father more or less ignores him—his neglecting to pick up his son from a rained-out baseball game is the impetus that sets Brian’s ill-fated encounter in motion, as the beefy, mustachioed coach, whose name we never learn, offers to drive him home.
Neil eventually becomes a 14-year old hustler whose cool, detached demeanor prevents anyone from getting close to him. When he moves to New York City a few years later he continues this line of work, with, unsurprisingly, more dramatic results than in Kansas—one experience with a customer who has AIDS particularly affects him, though the flicker of emotion on his face is nearly imperceptible.
Brian, on the other hand, has been traumatized by the incident, coping only by repressing the memories, though he’s not without a few side effects: frequent nosebleeds, bedwetting, strange dreams, and mental blackouts. He knows something happened to him as a child, but is convinced he was abducted by aliens. After recognizing one of his former Little League teammates from a recurring dream, he tracks down Neil, hoping to solve the puzzle that has plagued him for as long as he can remember.
The ending is quite strong: Neil and Brian have broken into the coach’s former home, and as Brian breaks down into convulsions, Neil trying to comfort him, Christmas carolers gather outside the door to sing. Throughout the story, Brian has seemed like more of a shell of a person, waiting to become someone; one senses that he’s finally on the way to coming to terms with his abuse and forming a personality of his own.
The Seventh Seal, Ingar Bergman, 1957
In this brutal rendering of the black plague, a knight returns from the Crusades, only to meet Death face to face (he looks more tired than sinister, but then, he’s been pretty busy these days). The knight is able to buy a little time by challenging him to a game of chess, but as he knows, death is inevitable, inescapable.
This is considered one of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films, and yet, in every scene featuring the weary, cape-clad Death, I couldn’t help but picture De Düva, a 1968 parody of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries directed by original SNL cast member George Coe. In De Düva (The Dove), an aging professor is on his way to a lecture when dove droppings splatter across the windshield. He takes a detour into his uncle’s old house, his mind wandering to a bygone family picnic, when Death arrived to claim his sister, Inga. Inga challenges Death to a badminton game; while they’re playing, a dove shits on Death’s cape, distracting him enough to miss the birdie, and he loses the game. The entire movie is spoken in faux-Swedish, which is kind of like English with –ska added to the end of every noun. When I watched Wild Strawberries again a few months ago, I wasn’t immediately reminded of shit-splattered windshields, so I imagine it must be something about this image of Death that hasn’t survived the test of time (now that I think about it, his character was parodied to a lesser degree in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which probably hurt this film’s durability even more than De Düva—I just can’t take this incarnation of Death as seriously as I should).
Brewster McCloud, Robert Altman, 1970
This is my favorite Altman movie yet, so zanily absurd that it’s hard to succinctly explain the plot, but I’ll make an attempt. Brewster, played by the inimitable Bud Cort looking like a cross between Harry Potter and Waldo, lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome, hard at work building a pair of wings so he can fly. He periodically receives a supply of health food from Daphne, a pig-tailed girl who hysterically masturbates under a blanket while Brewster does chin-ups (he’s trying to bulk up for the big take-off, though from the looks of it, his efforts are somewhat futile). Meanwhile, police are investigating a series of murders in which the victims are found covered in bird shit (scatologists are brought in to inspect the feces).
Throughout the film, we encounter various birdlike characters. An eccentric-looking professor/ornithologist standing in front of a blackboard sporadically interjects with encyclopedic factoids about birds, and gradually begins to squawk and develop feathers. Then there’s Louise, a blonde trench-coated woman who has wing-shaped scars on her back (in one scene we catch her bathing in a fountain, mimicking the scene from MASH where Hot Lips is caught by surprise in the shower), who serves as a kind of protector and guardian for Brewster whenever he emerges from his lair.
Sexual desire is Brewster’s fatal flaw, his life spiraling out of control when he befriends Suzanne, a waiflike tour guide at the Astrodome. Suzanne seems kind of an oddball herself, though we eventually discover that she’s really a conservative wimp who fashions herself as a rebel (maybe Altman had some actual people in mind here). Despite her ultimately leading to Brewster’s undoing, I can’t help but love her character anyway (and besides, she’s played by Shelley Duvall, who’s kind of inimitable herself).
As in many Altman films, it ends on a postmodern note, alerting audiences to the fact that they’re watching a movie (see MASH, The Long Goodbye, The Player, etc). We’re only allowed a brief moment of grief for poor Brewster before the whole thing turns into a colorful circus ring, complete with a ringmaster, lion tamer, and so on.
How to Draw a Bunny, John W. Walter, 2002
This documentary about pop artist Ray Johnson begins as an investigative piece, with a policeman assigned to Johnson’s mysterious drowning. Once it begins to delve into Johnson’s history, it continues as an investigative piece, examining the person Johnson was. However, it seems that no one truly knew him, and at the film’s close, he remains a bit of an enigma. The testimony of various acquaintances (including Christo and Jean Claude, Chuck Close, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others) helps to paint a broader picture, but not a complete one. It’s clear that Johnson was quite eccentric; people imagined him as the type of person who trained himself to survive without food (in truth, he did subsist on very little). He ran with other eccentrics, such as Dorothy Podber, who notoriously shot a series of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe paintings between the eyes (inadvertently increasing their worth). His various apartments and homes were all similarly austere, starkly decorated with an air mattress and some shelves, but filled to the brim with collages and paintings—it seems as though he existed only to create art, which often crossed over into his everyday life. For instance, he liked to involve those interested in purchasing his art in a kind of performance piece, insisting on a series of complicated correspondences negotiating the price before coming to an agreement (in one instance, someone offered $1500 for a collage, though Johnson had asked for $2000; Ray agreed but gave the buyer a collagewith one quarter cut out, representing $500’s worth). Even his death has been speculated by some as a final performance.
I knew nothing about Ray Johnson before seeing this, which is interesting because I’ve read a number of books on his contemporary, Andy Warhol, and the 60s art scene in general, with no mention of Johnson to speak of. I was instantly enamored with his work (though not so much his later performance pieces, a medium that I overall dislike). His collages are humorous and innovative, and I love the concept of mail art, though it unfortunately didn’t help to get his vast oeuvre into museums, his art showing not in a gallery, but distributed by the U.S. postal system to one viewer at a time—which leads back to the fact that he’s missing from most books pertaining to that era of artists.