brianna ashby

La Jetée (1962)

TIME BUILDS ITSELF PAINLESSLY AROUND THEM

by Brianna Ashby

“We are a landscape of all we have seen.” –Isamu Noguchi

Every summer, until the age of about five, my parents and I drove to Solomonʼs Island, Maryland to visit my grandparents at their home on the beach. Early every afternoon I followed my grandmother down the back stairs onto the sand and trailed behind her as we walked along the shore. Along the way she would stop and trace shapes around little treasures with her big toe–seashells, sea glass, sharkʼs teeth–that I would scoop up and plunk into my little plastic bucket. One afternoon we left the bucket behind; she had gotten me a beach ball, red and blue and yellow and white, the colors twirling like an inflatable pinwheel. As we were passing it back and forth a wind kicked up and carried the ball out to sea. Small and sad and helpless I watched as it bobbed up and down on the waves and drifted further and further away. A moment later, I stood frozen in abject terror as I watched my grandmother dive into the cloudy water in furious pursuit of the disappearing ball; I was convinced that she was going to be swept under the waves and that I would be the one to blame. I stood on the brink of the ocean, nearly hysterical, for a million years before I saw her paddling to shore. The ball was gone, but what did I care? I let her carry me home.

“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.”

La Jetée is the story of a man, The Man, haunted by a traumatic event from his childhood; a death on the pier at Orly Airport, sometime before the start of World War Three. His parents had taken him there to watch the planes, as was customary on Sundays before the hostilities broke out. There was an incident on the boarding platform. A man was killed. Although the scene was unspeakable, it wasnʼt the manʼs death that haunted him but the face of The Woman standing at the end of the pier. Through the chaos and horror he saw her more clearly than he had ever seen anything before and from that moment on he would keep her with him always, a beacon of tranquility and peace that carried him through his soldierʼs life. Some memories, especially those from our childhoods, are powerful enough to stay with us, to lead us back to that particular instant in that particular place that will exist forever in our minds. Sometimes a recollection is so powerful that it becomes something of an obsession, blotting out the weaker memories until the past and the present become one and the same. After years of turning inward to escape the atrocities of war, her face was all he could see.

In the aftermath of the Third World War Paris was destroyed, and with the Earthʼs surface “rotten with radioactivity,” all of the survivors fled underground to the Palais de Chaillot galleries. It is in this post-apocalyptic landscape that we meet The Man who is no longer a solider, but a prisoner of war. With outer space off-limits for colonization, mankindʼs only hope for survival is “to call pastand future to the rescue of the present,” to travel through time and carry back with them the building blocks for a new civilization. The scientists of the victorious parties begin conducting experiments on the prisoners in the hopes of finding a subject whose mental images are strong enough to fortify them against the shock of time travel; if a man can wholly conceive or dream atime and place he can live there. The experiments fail, resulting in disappointment, madness, and death for the subjects, until they reach The Man and The Woman whose face he cannot shake.

They send him back.

After ten days the images begin to materialize, fragments of the world before it was turned to rubble: a field, an empty bedroom, a “real” bedroom, real children, birds, cats, graves. On day sixteen, The Man is on the empty pier at Orly, and she is standing alone at the end. He begins to see her everywhere- in a car, on the pier- she is omnipresent. On the thirtieth day, they finally meet, walking through the sun-dappled gardens of Paris, an unspoken,unadulterated trust growing between them. No memories. No plans. The inventors send him back again and again, to meet her in different places and at different times, and she begins to welcome this strange visitor into her world. She affectionately calls him her ghost. They fall in love. On the fiftieth day they meet in a museum full of “ageless animals,” meandering together through the empty galleries, marveling at the static displays of what was once wild and free, a monument to the past, a resplendent mausoleum.

The inventors bring him back to the present, and flush with success, they send him into the future to retrieve the means of survival for humankind. The people of the future offer to let The Man remain with them and escape his inevitable demise at the hands of his captors, but he has a different request: to return to his childhood, to that Sunday afternoon at Orly in the hopes of meeting his love at their inception. Instead of choosing to live in a pacified, but wholly alien future, he chose to return to the memory of the only place that felt like home, the only face that felt like home.

Itʼs the same reason we keep stacks of photographs and snapshots framed next to our bedsides - we need the comfort and stability of the familiar, even if what weʼre returning to is sad or traumatic. Itʼs what we know. Looking to the future can be exciting, but itʼs also terrifying, and itʼs nearly impossible to steel yourself for the shock of the new without the cushion of the past to fall back on. We can visit our histories as often as weʼd like, but we were never meant to live there. We can reach back and grab hold of those beacons of peace, hope, and love that we have squirreled away and carry them with us into the future because, eventually, we all have to make our way forward. Pushing on into the unknown is uncomfortable but necessary for our sanity, for our survival, instead of stagnating, mired in the past, trapped in the museums weʼve built to house our precious memories.

Over the years Iʼve been a frequent visitor to that patch of sand on Solomonʼs Island, where I stood transfixed squinting into the sun, frantically scanning the horizon for my grandmotherʼs bobbing shape. I take a deep breath and realize that I am no longer rooted to that spot. I relax my brow and uncrossing my fingers I dig my toes into the sand and everything is different, but everything is the same. In just a moment my abject terror will give way to unbridled joy and my grandmother will appear to carry me home. Time marches on.



Brianna Ashby’s grandmother gave her another beach ball when she graduated from college. She managed to lose that one too.

“Ah, little lad, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I’ll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other. Now watch ‘em! Old brother left hand, left hand he’s a fighting, and it looks like love’s a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love’s a winning! Yessirree! It’s love that’s won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!”

–Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)

ISSUE #3 OF BRIGHT WALL/DARK ROOM IS NOW AVAILABLE!

In this issue we look (mostly) at films having to do with journalism or the media in some form or another, with an occasional detour for new fare (Blue Jasmine) and an award-winning short film (Paperman). All in all, Issue #3 features nine new articles/essays from both staff and freelance writers (including Sheila O'Malley from RogerEbert.com!) and seven original illustrations from Brianna Ashby.

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(If you’re already a subscriber, check your device, Issue #3 should already be there waiting for you!)

 

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

I LOVE YOU, BUT YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.

by Brianna Ashby

After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, my brother-in-law wrote to say that Suzy Bishop reminded him of the way he imagined me as a young lady. I was flattered that anyone would ever conceive of me as a possible part of Wes Anderson’s world—and thrilled by the idea that, as an adult, I’ve come to embody the sort of child that I always wished I had been. Unfortunately, I lacked the confidence and the sense of purpose that it takes to embrace your own particular weirdness: It took me years to recognize that the things that separated me from most of my peers were the things that defined who I was—and it took me even longer to believe that someday someone else would actually love me for those very same quirks.

And then it happened. I began to come into my own once I saw so much of myself mirrored in someone else, but at the same time, I wanted to keep it all a secret, afraid that somehow it would tarnish if it was left exposed. I finally felt that I had found someone I could build a world around. Together we collected old photographs and postcards—bits of other people’s histories—and tried to replicate them with grainy polaroids and love notes in loopy cursive that helped to inject a sense of nostalgia into the slowly budding narrative we were busy creating together because, to us, it felt like it had already been written years ago.

When Sam Shakusky meets Suzy Bishop in the summer of 1965, it is the reintroduction of two old souls, a continuation of a story that had begun long before. Their instant connection, the strength of their bond, and their resolve to be together against all odds defies their tender ages, but their courage and defiance in plotting an escape from the world belies the sort of innocent and untainted hope only a twelve year old could ever truly possess. Watching the film, I did see some of myself in Suzy, not as a young girl, but as a young woman who found hope for herself and for the future in the face of a young man. Moonrise Kingdom is a restorative film: unabashedly uplifting, and so very, very alive, breathing fresh air into our dusty old hearts and reminding us what it is like to love with the absolute conviction and utter abandon of the young.

I still have a shoebox full of crumbling sepia photographs that serve as the last vestiges of that formative relationship. Sometimes we need something tangible to jog our memories so we can revisit places and times that have long since gone by. We all primarily use the same means of storing our pasts, and the same tools for recollecting them, and in Moonrise, Wes Anderson ingeniously plays off of this intimate commonality, giving the film a recognizable context, making Sam and Suzy’s love story feel like our love story. Lingering shots of unruly sea grass and weathered lighthouses, threadbare braided rugs thrown over sandy hardwood floors and ancient bike paths read like snapshots from a family vacation; someone’s attempt to capture on film what it feels like when the salty breeze tosses your hair around while you squeeze your eyes shut and see the fiery specter of the sun behind your eyelids.

The brief image of Suzy, binoculars in hand, all white and coral against that impossibly blue sky, is stunning in both its beauty and its simplicity. You get the feeling that if you plucked any moment off of the screen, you would find yourself holding an old Polaroid, marveling at both the sudden pang of nostalgia and the masterful hand of the photographer. The graininess of the “film” and the mostly bleached color palette lend an undeniable home movie quality that instantly lures you in with its familiarity.

Anderson has once again obsessively and painstakingly created a gloriously detailed and immersive world—this time the fictitious coastal town of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of New England. Having spent all of my childhood summers in coastal towns in the region, the affectionate portrayal of the tiny hamlet is especially striking, but not at all surprising considering the lengths that Anderson will often go to elevate the setting of a film into an integral character. (Rushmore Academy, The Tenenbaum House, The Belafonte…) We conjure the spirits of the places that have held us like we summon the distant specters of lips that we have once kissed, often recalling a sheet of peeling wallpaper or the feeling of a cold tile floor beneath our feet with more clarity than the touch of another. The settings of our firsts and lasts aren’t merely static backdrops, they live and breathe with us, holding fast to the parts of our lives we experienced within their bounds, even the places and people that we’d like to forget.

And it’s not particularly surprising that the people and places of New Penzance are exactly what Sam and Suzy would like to forget. It is abundantly clear to both of them that the adult exemplars they are meant to follow are, in reality, incredibly lonely people that seem to be irrevocably unhappy. What spirited, dreamy, love-struck child wants to believe that they are destined to a life of bludgeoning mediocrity? That they will never be able to flourish and grow and build? Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura Bishop, are shining examples of what happens when you close yourself off to wonder and surprise, whimsy and adventure, and, most damaging of all, love. Their marriage is stagnant, their lives quiet, mundane and unrewarding.

The older we get, and the longer our relationships last, the more convoluted they often become—until one day we don’t even really remember what we are fighting for or about. Time continues to pass until we no longer recognize the people we’ve become, but have also forgotten who we ever were to begin with. The Bishops’ struggle and misguided efforts to understand their “troubled” daughter, and her reasons for running away, stem from this difficulty in recalling a time when they were bound together through desire instead of obligation. It is this overwhelming feeling of obligation that binds the adult characters together; the Bishops, Captain Sharp, and Scoutmaster Ward, all obliged and determined to protect Sam and Suzy from the same sad fates that have befallen them at the hands of love. When this motley crew of lonely hearts bands together to find the preteen darlings and rescue them from themselves, it becomes painfully obvious who really needs the saving.

With all of the adults in their lives mired in denial and bogged down by rules and regulations and logistics and responsibilities, it is no wonder that Sam and Suzy, two misfits longing for freedom and acceptance, find the perfect escape in each other. The scenes of Suzy reading aloud from her favorite fantasy stories while Sam listening intently by her side are so charming and so wistful and soright; their casual intimacy is enviable in its purity, their youthful awkwardness making it all the more heart rending. (The flawless addition of a Francoise Hardy 45 doesn’t hurt either.)

Seeing Sam and Suzy on screen, I couldn’t help but think back to the times in my own life when I felt like I could throw everything overboard because all I needed to survive was a single other person, us against the world. It is a selfish mindset, but not necessarily a malicious one. Sometimes you have to leave behind the Sharps and the Bishops and the Wards of the world in order to avoid following in their tragic footsteps. Sometimes you have to take the lead so that they can follow your example.

Moonrise Kingdom ignites the spark of emotional wanderlust that lies dormant in so many of us, and shows us what we could do with even a fraction of our youthful lust for adventure. I want to remember what it was like to play fast and loose with my heart, even when it seems foolish, because so much of value can lie buried underneath words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘absurd’. I want to spend more time thinking about what brought my husband and I together instead of what we’re going to have for dinner tonight. I want to feel like I’ve found my place in the world and that it’s exactly where we stand, and every line on every map that does not outline this place is erased by an invisible hand. I want to save myself before I need saving. I want to flip through faded old photographs plucked from moments in my life and feel the sun on my face and the salt from the sea air settle on my skin. I want to find my own Moonrise Kingdom, a place where they will never find us, because maybe, just maybe, there’s still some lightning in me yet.

Brianna Ashby has taken off her shoes and one of her socks and…actually, I think she’s crying.