Mr. Pun

It’s odd how much something as small as a Facebook update can leave a lasting impact.

I can’t remember the context, or even which of us made it. All I know is one of us mentioned board games, the other commented, and you eventually convinced me to go to Techfront. Neither of us are even sure how we were already friends on Facebook at that point.

The Technological Frontier Society – a former futurist society that eventually grew bored of discussing futurism and eventually devolved into a sci-fi club. By the time I joined, it was a standard midnight movie club with board games inexplicably thrown in.

Six and a half years have passed since that first trip, yet I spent my most recent Saturday evening at that club. I even graduated four years ago, yet I somehow find myself tied to it.

With how central it has been to me, it’s weird how out of place I felt there in those early months. I’ve always been intimidated by new people, and most of the people there already had their distinct groups. I felt as an outsider.

You were my in, the one person I could comfortably speak to before I eventually broke in with the others. If I had simply stumbled across this club on my own, I can’t imagine I would have stayed long. It’s easier to hermit.

My freshman friends quickly faded, so I’m always surprised to look back and see how long this group has lasted – we had a table at our wedding that was essentially the Techfront crowd.

Your perception of people tends to change as you get to know them, yet you summarized yourself so perfectly early on. You gave me a ride to Techfront from our dorm one evening and talked of your website. You claim to have a literal pun addiction and created a place to express those humorous yet invasive thoughts – an addiction so strong I believe it’s referenced on your license plate. After talking this site up, you suddenly warned me never to visit.

“Are the puns that bad?” I asked innocently enough, as if I expected you to have shame.

No, no. The site had been hacked and taken over by spam bots. You saved me from a potential virus, but the awful puns? Those would be the cost of your friendship.

Why We Build the Wall

I entered the 2016 election with much the same feeling as the 2012 election – there’s no way we would actually vote in Donald Trump of all people, right? A man I and likely most of my generation knew through reality TV, who we had previously collectively laughed at for his orange complexion and awful hair, who made George W. Bush look intelligent and grounded?

But I made sure to vote anyway – unlike Romney, Trump felt like a true threat. Even if the polls suggested he had little chance of winning, and again my vote in Illinois would mean nothing either way, politics no longer stood in the background. More than likely, I was galvanized by the 2014 election – my first job out of college was represented by a public union, and we were essentially public enemy #1 in Bruce Rauner’s Illinois. I couldn’t vote him out until 2018, but I had learned other races matter.

Trump winning is still this surreal moment – just like my high school, I somehow believed we as a country had moved past such blatant displays of hatred. But an entire swath of our country voted in a man who spoke to nothing but underlying fears of the other. How can so many people – the people who by all measures have the power in our country – be living lives guided by terror?

You invited me back to your office that next morning – you could recognize my despair, knowing that I was young, openly gay, and therefore more than likely sharing your political leaning. You told me we’d get through it. I was terrified – I was in the midst of planning my wedding, and had only just gained that right. How much could Trump and a Republican Congress take from us?

You spoke of how we survived Bush and survived Reagan – but did we? Did people like me truly ‘survive’ Reagan? White women like you, yes. But nearly an entire generation of gay men were wiped out by a virus that Reagan actively ignored.

Not only was I gay, but I was finally coming to terms with the fact that I probably didn’t identify as a man. I didn’t identify as a woman, either, so I wouldn’t really be affected by these bathroom debates, but where would the line stop? Most people don’t accept that non-binary people like me even exist – I had every right to believe Trump and his Congress would attempt to delegitimize us further, not just socially but through legislation.

People like me, we’re simply one of the many building blocks for the wall. Trump knows he can call upon us to strike up new fears – that his wall won’t be built until his followers are convinced they’re being attacked from every angle. These people are blinded to the actual sources of the instability in their lives, living as though they’re dying of a preventable disease and happy with articles that claim the blood they cough will go away once they spit enough out.

So, yes – you will survive. As much as you didn’t want it, Trump’s America is designed to harm people like you the least – and I can count myself lucky I’m still high enough on the pecking order that I probably will, too.


You were pissed at me for not bothering to vote.

I tried to talk it down – after all, this was Illinois. Obama couldn’t lose here, and if he somehow did, we certainly weren’t going to be the swing state.

I came into that night with relatively little fear – who in the world liked Mitt Romney? You pointed to other things, such as local elections. I’m afraid to admit I’ve always been a bit more ignorant than I like to admit. None of it mattered – things would work out fine.

I feel like I can better recognize your frustration now – me, a white (at-the-time-identifying-as) man, telling a black woman there was nothing I was afraid of. I carried the privilege of not having to care. You appealed to my queer identity, but the polls were already closed. There was nothing we could change at that point.

We sat around watching the numbers come in, but I was quickly bored as the predictable result occurred. This election carried as little meaning to me as that mock election back in 2000; the safe, familiar thing was happening, and my side was winning. It would have been nice to see Democrats regain power in Congress – but it’s not like I really appreciated anything beside the presidency even at the beginning of my adulthood.

Man – it was really nice not having to care.


It’s not the glee at finally being rid of Bush or anyone like him that I remember about the day after the election, nor was it celebrating that the same America who elected George W. Bush twice was now welcoming its first black president.

No, what I sadly recall is overhearing an upperclassman talk about wanting to take his father’s shotgun to the White House as we sat in our computer class. The murmurs in the hallway featuring words I would never repeat here, in a town I never realized was like this.

I remember sitting beside you as you spoke of lynching before Pre-Calculus began. I had known you for several years at that point, and I was unaware something so vile sat inside your heart. That not only did you carry so much hatred toward those of differing beliefs, but that it was expressed through a desire for racial violence – all of this coming from one of the most bullied girls in our school.

To think I used to pity you.

I had been ignorant enough to believe this type of vitriol was limited to the south – that everyone was equally shocked back when our eighth grade history teacher spoke of the time her grandmother casually mentioned baking for her father’s Klan meetings over dinner. Soon after the election, another history teacher who had a particular focus on the Civil Rights movement informed us that even our own town of Mt. Zion had a history with lynching.

His name was Samuel Bush, and he was accused of assaulting a white Mt. Zion woman and taken to the jail over in Decatur. The Deputy Sheriff and Chief of Police tried to talk down the mob of nearly one thousand people that had gathered, an act for which the latter was assaulted. Sam Bush was dragged naked through the streets, offered a last word as a noose was already so tight around his neck that it had to be loosened for him to speak. “I hope to see you again in heaven,” he told the crowd of people gathered to murder him.

Our town is the type of place where you imagine the same families hanging around for well over a century; was your great-great-grandfather one of the men who gathered to hang Samuel Bush at the corner of Wood and Water? Which, now that I’m looking at a map of Decatur, I realize is a corner right outside the building where my step-father and aunt work.

I never realized this was so close to home.

Mt. Zion was so white-washed that I never really had to think about race until Obama became president. I assumed everyone had accepted the whole ‘racism is bad’ thing – the worst I thought was maybe some misguided beliefs through our lack of really experiencing diversity. But to you and your kind, Obama was a very real threat.

A bit later, that same teacher brought in a cousin of Emmett Till as a speaker. He told our school of that horrid night, of being there at one of the most nauseating atrocities in American history. I’d like to think this got through to people like you, that hearing a first-hand account of such horror would wake you up.

But more than likely, his story fell on deaf ears.

Critical Failures

Even as a child, I never understood how George W. Bush won a second term. Perhaps the explanation was as simple as my likely reason for going against Gore, that John Kerry was so frightfully boring that Bush managed to come off as the more charismatic of the two.

Whatever the case, it became so hard to believe in this country. How could it come down to those two choices, how could we choose the same person who dragged us into such horrifying conflicts with no apparent end? Bush fumbled everything he touched, and his nonsense vocabulary was by this point familiar. If this man represented the country as a whole, it was scary to think what this country was.

But at the end of the day, this was a minor annoyance in my daily life. It didn’t affect me directly in any meaningful way, and Bush being president was a familiar experience. Surviving another four years would be easy enough.

And if nothing else, I never got the sense Bush was intentionally trying to sabotage our country – the lack of intent behind harm somehow seems honorable these days.

Ignorant Pleasures

I voted for George W. Bush back in 2000.

My second grade class, for whatever reason, held a mock vote for that election. I can’t remember why I chose Bush – I don’t know if I knew anything about either him or Gore at that age. Perhaps I caught enough of the morning news before school to see how boring Al Gore was – you know, the important stuff. But the choice was more than likely entirely random.

There was something satisfying about his win – again, not because I was invested in what he stood for, or even understood what a president really did, but because it was my team. I didn’t see his verbal flubs, hear about any hanging chads – it was nothing but a popularity contest.

It’s easy to treat elections like a game when you don’t know enough to know it affects you. George H. Bush won – I won.

A Shortness of Breath

I was introduced to Godard in one of my first film classes. We watched Breathless, and it appeared most of my fellow students hated it.

For me, it was like the final piece of a puzzle. I got narrative, I got atmosphere, I was at least aware of the more technical aspects of cinema, but Breathless operated like an immediate lesson on editing. Of course all films have editing – well, almost all – but it tends to be a subtle form. The less you notice the better seems to be the common wisdom. Breathless tosses that aside, taking a Brechtian approach. If every cut is noticed, we are reminded again and again this is only a movie.

Where Eraserhead was like a chance encounter with a babbling Ancient One, Breathless is that jerk who explains every magic trick before it’s finished. Godard wants us to be aware how easily manipulated we are, to be aware how violent a simple cut can be.

It’s that moment at the beginning, where Michel shoots a cop and flees – but we never see the shooting, only a quick series of shots that suggest a shooting. Everything – well, almost everything – in fictional cinema is a construction, several stray shots connected to form a bigger whole.

I don’t believe Godard is a cynic to make such a film – quite the opposite, in fact. I can’t imagine anyone having more fun while actually making a movie. His love of cinema seems apparent in how he works in the medium. He doesn’t want to eradicate the illusion as much as he wants an informed audience – a more knowledgeable audience allows an artist to do more with their work.

There are certain people who seem to expect critics to be able to just turn off their judgment and take a movie in – as if everything we’ve learned through the thousands of movies we have watched can just be put aside for a few hours. People seem to think critics don’t have fun while watching movies – but the truth is that our idea of fun has changed with experience. So many traditionally ‘fun’ films rely on simple imagery, things that start to lose meaning once you’ve seen several films do the exact same thing. We don’t watch art films simply because they’re more ‘valuable’ or what-not; for someone who has viewed that many movies, it’s the more technical aspects that become fun. A truly great director offers a certain style that can’t be found elsewhere.

And because I think this needs emphasis – art films are fun. Critics wouldn’t be so enamored if they were bored. The opposite is also true – these big Hollywood productions become boring when you sit through enough of them. It’s not that we can’t have fun, as much as certain studios tend to cut corners and offer nothing new beyond some shiny visual effects. What’s enjoyable about an old experience with purely surface-level modifications?

We’re not some alien creatures, judging films with inexplicable criteria. In all honesty, I think there’s a certain point where the simple act of watching a movie should become a fun process. The idea of being ‘bored’ by a movie seems a foreign concept these days. And when you reach the point where the simple act of watching a film is fun, you have to develop criteria that looks beyond enjoyment – otherwise, every movie carries the same value.

To create art is a skill – what is often overlooked is that the act of consuming art likewise requires skill. No one is born with an understanding of cinema, or books, or music. Everything we see in this world was at some point learned. Never accept the easy answer – it might make things simple, but in the world of art, you’re missing so much because of it.

Like everything else in life, the effort you put into understanding film determines how much you can get out of it.

Slip Inside This House

Of all films, I think the one I’ve watched most is this semi-obscure horror comedy named Hausu, a Japanese production from the late 1970s.

Part of the appeal is how inexplicable it feels – it seems to go against everything I know about cinema. Eraserhead pushed the envelope, but Hausu tossed everything aside. It’s simplistic and gaudy, yet there’s this base appeal. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures – there had to be something that mad it work, even if I lacked the words.

I had rented it from Netflix just a month before heading off to college and was mesmerized – one of the first things I did after getting to college was meet up with a couple friends I made over the summer through Facebook, and we watched Hausu in the basement of Allen Hall.

It’s the perfect midnight movie – so colorful and bonkers to appeal to the so-bad-its-good aesthetic, but carrying enough technical weight to actually impress those paying close enough attention. What is it saying? Does it mean anything? It seems indecipherable, a work of pure viscera – but nothing great is that simple. A subtle meaning reveals itself with repeated viewings, much like Mulholland Drive – beneath its excess is commentary on the expectations of young women in Japanese society.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the film people most associate me with – it became a habit to show any new friend this film eventually. I’m infected and this is my virus – something this unique yet so under-watched needed to be spread.

We got in a fight about this movie several months back – you know I hold myself up as some sort of critic, and me saying it was a movie that defied explanation wasn’t enough. You were right – it was an empty answer. I wanted a film I could just enjoy without thinking – but there had to be something. No other film got that pass, so why this one?

The next night, I sat down and wrote everything I loved about the film. The connections became clear; the spectacle of Georges Melies, the conceptual treatment of concepts as found in early Soviet cinema, all mixed with contemporary psychedelia, feminism, and the baffling nature of Japanese advertising – Hausu speaks in several familiar languages, but it’s hard to make the jump from A Trip to the Moon to the late 70s without anything in-between. It’s as if director Obayashi imagined a world where we stuck to Melies’ fantastical sets and conspicuous editing tricks, where we decided to eschew realism entirely. It’s odd among films of the 1970s, but Hausu makes a surprising amount of sense in the context of early cinema.

In the end, while every film has its own method of communication, they are still limited by the overarching language of cinema. Every film, no matter how esoteric, has another film, another movement it can be connected to. No art exists in a vacuum – but a film like Hausu, one that takes so much effort to figure out how it fits, something that can trick us into believing someone made something wholly original over 70 years into the medium? They’re treasures that deserve to be cherished.

You’ve Got Your Good Things

Eraserhead was on Netflix and I decided to just turn it on one evening; I knew nothing of the film beyond faint whisperings of its oddness. Most likely, this lack of information is what made it such an effective experience.

Up until that point, most films I had encountered were traditional narratives. They had beginnings and ends, and most of the things between had a logical flow. And that’s how I thought films were supposed to be made – a visual method of telling a story.

Eraserhead worked its way beneath my skin. The opening was inexplicable, and its faint suggestion of plot as we start to follow Henry Spencer quickly unravels. It was more a waking nightmare than a traditional story.

I remember having to pause the film after a certain point – I had been watching with no lights on, my lack of expectations leaving me vulnerable. Where Spirited Away had left me breathless with its beauty, Eraserhead wrapped its hands around my throat. Few films have left me looking for an exit, and unlike the Elephants or Pink Flamingos of the world, I’m not sure how to explain why. There was no explanation for what was happening on screen, but I knew it didn’t feel good.

By leaving me so paralyzed with no easy explanation, one thing became clear – the art of cinema was never about plot. Individual films could be, but it was never a necessity. There was some other force there, something all films carried – I soon started to call it atmosphere. Films consist of hundreds of little pieces coming together for an emotional experience – stories just make those emotions easier to comprehend. I never had to consider this idea until coming in contact with a film that stripped everything digestible away.

The unfortunate part of our education system is it teaches us to appreciate art in a certain way – we are mainly taught through literature, and largely tested through simple memorization. Especially with how popular literary adaptations are, I think we’re subtly taught to read movies in the same way we read books – but by doing so, we ignore the technical and stylistic prose. Just like a good novel has expertly-chosen language, movies have angles and cuts. But so much gets overlooked for the elements that are easier, that I think everyone needs some sort of Eraserhead to wake them up to the truth.

So you can go ahead and be happy with the easy way out – to believe that all these artistic choices are nothing more than a stepping stone to tell stories. You’ve got a good thing there, to believe that the most important merit of art is whether it’s easily digestible, the same familiar stew you have been fed since grade school without question.

But lurking out there somewhere is an Eldritch work, something that will open your eyes to ideas that had gone unseen but can never be unseen again. Find it, embrace it, for every work you’ve loved before will have new meaning. You’ll learn that every frame, every cut is pulsing with life – or maybe they aren’t, and maybe those old favorites won’t be favorites much longer.

After all, it doesn’t take a hundred people to come together to simply tell a story.

The Spiriting Away of Topher and Chris

One of the first things we did after Mom introduced us was watch Jurassic Park together. I’m not sure why you chose this particular movie, you just like watching movies. The walls of your house are lined with posters, and you attend so-called ‘classes’ at the local art theater any week you can.

Until you entered my life, movies were this minor thing for me – I liked cartoons, but even then, I was happy enough to turn on Cartoon Network. My attention span was short and movies felt so long.

One day you introduced me to IMDB, and I decided to check out the top 250 list. I hadn’t heard of most of the movies, and I mainly sought out the animated films. I had seen most, besides a few from Japan. The one that stood out was Spirited Away – I remembered seeing it at the video store, and I was surprised to see it all the way in the top 50. It seemed like something worth checking out.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of that first watch – it felt like nothing was going to be the same again. Truthfully, several films might have triggered that revelation, but Spirited Away got there first.

There’s that sequence where Chihiro takes the train, and she looks ahead as her face is reflected in the window. It’s this quiet moment that says so much – of growing up in a scary new world. The entire film carries this air of joyous melancholy – the innocence of childhood shed and replaced by the confidence of a knowing maturity.

I sat in awe at the closing shot – Chihiro staring longingly at the entrance to that other world, both haunted and vitalized by her experience. So much can be said in a glance. It moved me almost to tears – for the first time, it felt like I had found something truly beautiful in this world.

When we returned the video to the store, I immediately picked up Fantasia and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had something to drive me – if Spirited Away could make me feel so alive, there had to be others.

My whole life, I’ve been chasing the high of that first time. Very few works have touched me as much – the pieces falling into place the second time through Mulholland Drive, the two women’s faces spliced together near the end of Persona, that final question and responding scream as the third season of Twin Peaks closed out – and they all spoke more to horror than love. But I don’t need that gentle beauty Spirited Away blanketed me in – cinema itself has left me in awe.

I’m so grateful you’ve been a part of my life. Whether or not it was your goal, you helped me find my driving force. I spent my childhood chasing after this idea of a father figure, and you gave me more than I had imagined possible. Even though my goals sometimes feel impossible, you’ve always encouraged me to chase them. I always seem to credit finding Spirited Away as my entry point into the art of cinema – but really, it was you.

I just hope someday I have the strength to say these things to you directly. That you helped shape me into the person I am today, that I’m thankful I have you. I love you like I imagine a child loves their father – because that’s what you are to me.