Hazlitt Magazine

First Responders at the End of the World

A nuclear device explodes in a Midwestern city. A hurricane ravages a susceptible coast. What happens next? Inside Vibrant Response, the U.S. Department of Defense’s worst-case scenario drill.

The Myths That Keep on Giving

Passed down through generations, fables provide rich material for everything from novels such as Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor, to Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Twilight Zone. 

Meaningful Games in September

The Toronto Blue Jays making the playoffs for the first time in 22 years provokes the familiar pull of nostalgia, but much has changed for city and team alike.


Wesley - NYT Race

I’m someone who believes himself to have complete individual autonomy, someone who feels free. But I also know some of that autonomy is limited, illusory, conditional. I live knowing that whatever my blackness means to me can be at odds with what it means to certain white observers, at any moment. So I live with two identities: mine and others’ perceptions of it. So much of blackness evolving has been limited to whiteness allowing it to evolve, without white people accepting that they are in the position of granting permission.

I’m someone who believes himself to have complete individual autonomy, someone who feels free. But I also know some of that autonomy is limited, illusory, conditional. I live knowing that whatever my blackness means to me can be at odds with what it means to certain white observers, at any moment. So I live with two identities: mine and others’ perceptions of it. So much of blackness evolving has been limited to whiteness allowing it to evolve, without white people accepting that they are in the position of granting permission.-Wesley Morris, The New York Times Magazine: "The Year We Obsessed Over Identity"
The Myths That Keep on Giving

Passed down through generations, fables provide rich material for everything from novels such as Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor, to Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Twilight Zone. 

Sometimes the stories they tell are ones we’ve known for as long as we’ve understood language. Sometimes the stories are a window into someone else’s culture, or into a history different from the ones with which a reader grew up. They can illustrate moral lessons or serve as raw material for narratives both realistic and fantastical.Fables and fairy tales and folk tales can compel us on their own, but they’re also ripe for reinvention. Some authors may take the skeleton of a centuries-old story and use it as the basis for something new; others may borrow the language or structure in order to apply them to something else entirely. Authors have used this device to critique the mores of older stories and to add depth to more contemporary works; as an authorial perspective, it offers a way to blend the old and the new. Patrick deWitt’s new novel, Undermajordomo Minor, leans heavily on older traditions. It’s a self-consciously gothic book laced with archetypal elements. In it, a young man takes a job helping to run a nearly empty castle whose minor-noble occupant is prone to fits of madness. Also in the vicinity: a seemingly bottomless pit, a father-and-son team of master thieves, and rumblings of revolution. The novel’s protagonist, Lucien (Lucy) Minor, has his death at a young age averted by a mysterious stranger, though Lucy is himself more trickster than traditional hero. There are plenty of elements in deWitt’s novel that will be familiar to, well, just about anyone who’s encountered any kind of centuries-old narrative from Western culture. And deWitt isn’t shy about his influences: at the end of the Acknowledgements section, his tips his hat with a long list of authors whose works he consulted while writing this novel:In writing this book I considered the works of Thomas Bernhardt, Ivy Compton Burnett, Italo Calvino, Dennis Cooper, Robert Coover, Roald Dahl, J.P. Donleavy, C.F., Knut Hamsin, Sammy Harkham, Werner Herzog, Bohumil Hrabal, Shirley Jackson, Par Lagerkvist, Harrt Mathews, Stephen Millhauser, Jean Rhys, Robert Walser, and Eudora Welty.As roots for a potential syllabus into modern riffs on fables go, this is a pretty great one. deWitt’s novel can be difficult to pin down—it shifts from an almost mythical opening to a comedy of manners to something bleaker, and weaves in some self-aware aspects of its own narrative as well. But that’s of a piece with other recent works that have retold centuries-old stories: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird incorporated aspects of Snow White into its story of racial passing and a fraught familial relationship, but stopped short of a one-to-one transposition of its characters. And many of Angela Carter’s short stories rewrite older works, expanding their scope by finding the more modern questions of gender and power dynamics that arguably sat just below the surface.* We’re several generations into taking fairy tales, folk tales, and fables, and splicing them together, remixing them, remaking them into something new. This sense of re-interpretation runs deeply in Western popular culture: among other things, the “Fractured Fairy Tales” segment was a mainstay of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, which premiered in 1959—the same year that The Twilight Zone made its debut–and several of its segments have achieved the same sort of ubiquity in Western pop culture that certain fairy tales may have had centuries earlier.11Which would make the The Scary Door segments on Futurama a Fractured Fairy Tales of its own, essentially.  In her introduction to a new edition of Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber, Kelly Link notes that at around the same time (1961, specifically), a new revision of the Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index was translated into English, helping codify and classify the way we look at folklore. Once something’s been analyzed to that extent, certain tropes and devices are made clear—and once that’s done, curious writers can then pick apart and reassemble those pieces. Is it coincidence that this coincides with the beginning of The Twilight Zone—essentially, a kind of campfire tale that’s now endured for several generations? Reading the works of writers who contributed to The Twilight Zone’s early years, one can find a similar fondness for the reversals that abound in certain folktales—there’s generally a kicker, a twist, or something primal at work. John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights delves into the more surreal side of things, while Charles Beaumont’s Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories encompasses a wide range of stories written over its author’s short life. And while Ray Bradbury’s introduction makes the case for Beaumont as a writer of science fiction, some of the works contained in the book nod in an older direction. “The Howling Man,” for instance taps into something very primal, very essential, in its storytelling.22An adaptation aired on The Twilight Zone in 1960.   The setup is simple: Monks living in seclusion take in a man. He hears the cries of what seems to be a prisoner in the monastery. The monks warn him away from taking action; still, the prisoner begs for release. Our hero, being an amenable sort, helps the prisoner free. Cue the twist: the imprisoned man is the devil, now free to again sow evil throughout the world. Remove the implication that the story’s protagonist is inadvertently responsible for the rise of the Nazis and you have a tale that could have been told around fires to misbehaving children centuries earlier.*The narrative devices of fairy tales and folktales, when blended with a more modern authorial self-awareness, can yield complex narratives, whether long or short in form. Carter’s charging of older narratives with a complex awareness of gender dynamics is one key point of influence here; the surreal works of Jorge Luis Borges would be another. Redemption in Indigo, the first novel by Barbadian novelist Karen Lord, was inspired by a Senegalese folk tale, “Ansige Karamba the Glutton.” Aspects of its plot do seem timeless: its protagonist, Paama, finds herself bestowed with great and mysterious abilities, which brings her to the attention of several supernatural entities, all of whom have their own agendas. Lord’s methods of storytelling both hearken back to the importance of the storyteller and feel decidedly modern. (Reading this novel recalled the ways that John Barth brought together aspects of mythology and metafiction in works like Chimera.) The novel’s narrator, at one point, alludes to a character having had an adventure in the past that yielded a substantial amount of gold. “Perhaps I will tell you about later, if we have the time,” the narrator says. And towards the end of the novel, the sense is given that this story is only one fragment of a much larger narrative, altering the reader’s perception of all that has come before. The expansion of traditional stories into other genres has yielded memorable work.While Angela Carter’s shorter stories are often fully infused with the influence of older traditions, some of her novels—Nights at the Circus, Wise Children—ostensibly veer into more traditional territory. Even so, aspects of the fairy tale creep into these as well: the way that celebrity, in the 20th century, supplanted royalty as a way of reaching a high public profile, for instance. The second sentence of Wise Children’s second chapter begins with “Once upon a time.” Later in the same novel, narrator Dora recounts the making of a film several decades earlier: “Then something started to go wrong with time. We were all spellbound, now.” The film in question is a loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, itself a kind of riff on fairy tales. And even in a theoretically realistic novel, there’s room for a venture into a more dreamlike state.*The expansion of traditional stories into other genres has also yielded memorable work. Nalo Hopkinson’s award-winning books transpose elements of folk tales into science fictional settings; her 2000 novel Midnight Robber adds another layer to this, in that its plot both borrows fairy-tale elements and invokes mythic personas that characters can adopt. Her new collection, Falling in Love With Hominids, spans a wide stylistic range: there are stories of children living in a society where aging transforms them into distorted, carnivorous creatures; there’s also a fascinating look at art in culture in one of the most unconventional stories of time travel you’re likely to read. And there are riffs on fairy tales: in Hopkinson’s introduction to the story “Left Foot, Right,” she nods to Kelly Link’s assertion that fairy tale heroines often have difficulty with footwear; the story that follows is an impressively disorienting one, juxtaposing a kind of haunting and appearances from strange supernatural entities with a decidedly modern setting and dilemma.In some ways, deWitt’s most recent novel can be seen as the apex of a certain direction of this. There’s a certain archetypal central or eastern European setting.33Though the narratives they tell are very different, there are some similarities between it and Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.   The level of technology, too, is vague: the book could be set in the late 19th century, or it could simply be set in a part of a country that isn’t hooked up to a centralized power grid. For all that there are qualities of a fable, this isn’t necessarily a book suited for readers of all ages–one scene featuring decadent aristocrats ventures briefly into the transgressive. But there are also qualities of the mythic: a stranger who helps save Lucy early on, when he appears to be dying, is the most obvious example of this, though the aftereffects of his healing are, in the best fairy tale tradition, more ambiguous than anything.The decidedly European setting of deWitt’s novel is also noteworthy for its relatively generic nature—much as his earlier novel The Sisters Brothers both embraced and skirted parody of Western tropes. This novel veers into similar territory, albeit in a wholly different genre. Alternately: when you have decadent crypto-German aristocrats running around being mad and decadent, you’re clearly in the presence of a writer who knows the roots of the style in which they’re working. Even so, that, too, has become wider in recent decades. The folk tales and fairy tales that one writer grew up with may be completely unfamiliar to some of their readership, and vice versa. A less homogenous literary community can create a wider range of traditional stories to draw from, even as the weight of timelessness persists. Some stories are older than nations, and an infinite array of ways to tell and retell them endures.
First Responders at the End of the World

A nuclear device explodes in a Midwestern city. A hurricane ravages a susceptible coast. What happens next? Inside Vibrant Response, the U.S. Department of Defense’s worst-case scenario drill.

The incandescent dispatches of the desperate burned through the fog, scrawled in urgent spray paint onto white bed sheets, seeming to flutter freely in the air: “The End of Days”—“Injured Children”—“We Need Food”—“Is This Living”—“✝ We Need a Priest”—“What Do You Got To Trade?” The floating cries briefly took my mind off the gruesome forms, took me back to the drive down to Indiana, over a hundred miles north up I-65, past the long, fat python bellies of blown tires; well before Indianapolis pulls herself up from the green; well before the towering windmills bridge the level plains of sky and field, to a sign just outside the city of Gary, visible heading southbound, white sans serif all caps on a black field: “HELL IS REAL.”Our large grey Chevrolet van, its face smashed in like a pug dog, had led the convoy. Now we parked on the edges of the grievous sea of sunken homes alongside a white Ford Windstar mired in the water’s grassy edge, door ajar like a trauma victim’s eyes, revealing an interior faded and damp and almost laughingly macabre, thanks to the pair of tangerine bikini bottoms dangling from the post off the driver side door’s power lock. Outside, a scrap of blue and red tartan plaid hung ghastly from the van, pressed against the condensation-streaked back window by the rear wiper. On the roof sat a long metal pole, its rusted tips almost spearing my temple as I spun from the human forms sitting upon the lake, coming into focus through the fog.By the time we had arrived in Hell—the rolling thunder of our trucks dying with pops and snarls, hisses, low rumbles, finally falling into lockstep with the eerie silence surrounding us—the sun had humped high enough above Indiana to resemble a dental lamp swaddled in dryer sheets, hot white fuzz obscured by mists both chemical and natural. The fog, opaque and ominous, stood biblically on the floodwaters, which lapped at the half-drowned homes of Boatman Road, each domestic ruin materializing in the reduced visibility like shipwrecks.[[{"fid":"6690776","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Finally the figures on the lake began to register, the heads lolled over the backs of the lawn chairs on the houses’ roofs, lazy but rigid, the arms hung stiffly at the sides, the legs and thighs joined by knees at a perfect angle, a right angle, an artificial angle … corpses, rigor mortis? No, they were too perfect for corpses, too plastic, too much like mannequins …And not all Hells are real.*The best and worst Hells are man-made, a spectrum consisting of simulations for entertainment and training purposes on one end, and the most brutal committed atrocities of humanity on the other; our Hell, in Indiana, was firmly of the former. The sunken neighborhood of Boatman Road is just one of the myriad “venues” found in the sprawling Muscatatuck Urban Training Center (MUTC), an artificial ghost city-cum-post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the crown jewel of the Department of Defense’s Vibrant Response 14 drill.11And not even the most imposing/impressive/horrifying—the bridge collapse and subsequent train derailment takes that title.Designed to sharpen and evaluate the DOD’s CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) response capabilities, Vibrant Response 14 is gargantuan in scope: a 16-day dress rehearsal for the end of the world, featuring over 5,500 emergency personnel ranging from the municipal level to the state and federal governments. It operates across seven theaters throughout south-central Indiana under the aegis of Army North, the U. S. Northern Command tasked with the defense of the United States itself and coordinating disaster response. The 2014 iteration of Vibrant Response, assigned to the 46th Military Police Command National Guard unit of Sheboygan, Michigan, presented the aforementioned boots on the ground (BOGs) with that most stalwart of cataclysms, nuclear annihilation—specifically, in this case, a ten-kiloton device decimating a midsize (big enough for at least one Big Four professional sports franchise) Midwestern city.The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Response Framework drives the response after such an emergency, beginning with the appointment of a civilian incident commander and local first responders (police, fire, ambulance). If local responders were overwhelmed—or, in the case of an event like Vibrant Response’s phantom blast, possibly destroyed, either physically or mentally—the state’s response teams, including the National Guard, would get involved. Disasters of a severity beyond a state’s capabilities fall to FEMA, which first looks to neighboring states for aid and provides the incident commander and governor of the afflicted state with a disaster control officer (DCO). This person serves as a liaison between the various parties—FEMA, the governor, the incident commander—and the DOD. First priority for any given task falls to local and/or private operators, e.g., using Walmart’s infrastructure to move supplies rather than the Army’s, and it is the DCO’s job to ensure that all of these avenues are explored before seeking military answers—only when the task is simply too grand are the armed forces (or others that fall under Title X of the United States Code)22Including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as well as the “uniformed services,” which includes commissioned members of NOAH and the National Health Service along with the aforementioned armed forces. called in. The National Response Framework is why Vibrant Response confronts something so seemingly atavistic and fustian and conventional-war-style as a nuclear bomb: only horror on that inconceivable a scale, an ultimate worst-case scenario, could necessitate the use of Title X forces.Title X forces are used only in a supporting manner, to buttress civilian response—the goal of the DOD in such situations is never the assumption of and ascension to command, but to put its resources, expertise, and capital—all of which dwarf state and local agencies, and even some Federal ones—at the incident commander’s fingertips. The domestic responsibilities of armed forces are easy to forget, but to see the leviathan mobilizing with the intent to aid and not kill shows the other side of martial force.[[{"fid":"6690781","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I was in Indiana to see the escutcheon become a stretcher: to see how the ideals we consider intrinsic to the American spirit—a kind of deep, foundational gameness, an ability to overcome, to outwit, and never leave another outside the confines of our City on the Hill, against the walls of which disaster may lick, but never fully breach—may be revealed. In that way, Vibrant Response is a flexing of our Ragnarok muscle: the purposeful inching up to peer over the walls that separate society from bedlam, a thin bulwark the mere thought of whose failure can render one paroxysmal with savage fear.Just as the drill uniquely tests American values, it does so in uniquely American ways. The 5,500 personnel, 1,385 vehicles and trailers, 10 helicopters, one enormous false city and one real city falsely destroyed, could only be born here, the ultimate expression of our simultaneous obsessions with disaster and scale, a Hollywood-quality doomsday arriving at, and serving secretly as, the climax of Michael Bay season. The made-up grounds of Muscatatuck are strewn with the crumpled remains of motor vehicles; clothing clings to everything, sits upon the ground like puddles after a driving rain, hangs from the trees like haints; there are bicycles nestled in branches, stop signs clung to the grotesque plastic hooks of charred strollers like fruit bats, an antique wheelchair lies on its side in a field. Smokers pour ominous clouds from the hollow eye sockets of buildings, from the open cavities of panel trucks. Victims wander the streets, dead-eyed, dirty, some raspberry-faced with radiation burns, others with legs chewed into nearly unrecognizable masses of pulp, marrow and sinew and striated muscle. All of this is scored by the low rumble of trucks, the banshee wail of sirens, the distant chop of Black Hawk helicopters.As an observer, there was something both sacrosanct and grotesque about it. The unimaginable notion that all of this could one day become real—unlike most of our modern Armageddon porn—was expressed only rarely (always following an interjection of “God forbid” or something along those lines, in turn followed by the possible real-world iterations/implications/prognostications), and even then only by those in command. But there was a definite avoidance of evoking reality too much, as if in fear of the cataclysm’s conjuring. The plaintive screams of the victims, ignored as our convoy awaited the official beginning of the drill, underlined—albeit disconcertingly—the inherent falsity of it all.After Hurricane Katrina, Boatman Road was submerged under supervision, to assess what happened and what went wrong in that response; could the MUTC and its six fellow training areas prevent a similar disaster, or are they the most cinematic money pit yet?*Stay with me here while I fly down my embed point’s color-coded chain of command flow-chart. At the top in the Michigan-denoting blue box is TF4633The operation as a whole is dubbed Task Force 46, TF46 in martial acronymic fashion. and Major General Francisco. From there we follow the first arm of the horizontally squashed octopus down to the green (Alabama) boxed TFOPS, led by the 31st Chemical Brigade out of Northport, Alabama, across the river from Tuscaloosa. Under the 31st’s command is the 107th Engineer Battalion, from Ishpeming, Michigan, which lies completely outside the oven mitt on the Upper Peninsula. And inside the 107th, one finds the 208th chemical company, from Springville, Alabama—the unit with whom I rode in.The 208th operated out of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Jennings, a militarized Jennings County 4H Fairground in North Vernon, the parking lot filled with convoy vehicles and the air with the diesel white-noise hum of generator-lit base life. The Title X denizens of FOB Jennings had moved in like hermit crabs: the snack stand became the mess, camp offices became the home of the mayor (who was in charge of the logistics of the FOB, including keeping track of all the people on base, which, with my arrival, meant one more), the only solid, non-county-fair-looking structure being the Jennings tactical operations center (TOC). I spent my two nights in Indiana in barn five, its massive three-mouthed air conditioner reducing me to shivers.[[{"fid":"6690786","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]In the Jennings parking lot I met Staff Sergeant Christopher Davis, my personal liaison to the apocalypse. SSG Davis worked in the Jennings PAO with SSG Sandra Lucas, and was pulling double real-world duty as both my guide in the field and on base and as a reporter on assignment himself, tasked with profiling the 208th for Alabama Guardsman, published by the Alabama National Guard. A loquacious man of military bearing—from his athletic frame to his wire frame glasses to his high and tight haircut—SSG Davis spoke with a mellifluous Alabama accent, dripping like syrup and hiding the echoes of a stutter. When not answering my many questions or patiently translating military life for civilian ears, he’d tell stories—about standing tall as rockets buzzed his position; about seeking, via tactical spotlights, the quicksilver flashes of poisonous snakes carving lucent s’s in the desert sand while on deployment as an MP in Iraq and Afghanistan; about Napoleon’s great love for Josephine (he is a high school history teacher by trade); about the shockingly good Chinese restaurant in the one-stoplight Florida town—a golf swing from Alabama, he told me—where he and his wife live. He was the kind of man who can—and did—refer to me as “hoss,” and come across completely sincere. With SSG Davis by my side, I would be embedded with the 208th, waking with them at 0500 before rolling into MUTC.*Vibrant Response operates on two planes: one real and one fake. While the nuclear detonation and ensuing disasters that ostensibly brought us here were not real, the command and logistical challenges of moving thousands of people and over 75,000 short tons of equipment most definitely were; so, too, was my presence, and the need to keep tabs on other complicating factors, such as potentially dangerous weather conditions. Simple as it may seem to distinguish events stemming from the play-acted eradication of a Midwestern city from those present and concrete and right in front of your face, the truth of the matter is that both aspects of the drill mingle freely and frequently.A pair of code words helps cut through the confusion: “notional” when it pertains to the drill, and “real world” when it does not. For example: My presence at MUTC needed to be explained to various interviewees as real world, since notional “journalists” also roam the sites; when a sexual assault was reported as happening in TF46, its notional nature was quickly and repeatedly established. (This may seem in somewhat poor taste, but I found it reassuring that a simulated sexual assault was actually being dealt with—a marked improvement over the ostensible “do nothing, pretty much” SOP that preceded it. See also: stories in The Military Times, USA Today, and myriad other sources, as well as the Service Women's Action Network position for the problematic application of military justice with regard to sexual assault and rape.)This blending, while unavoidable, is also beneficial: providing real world obstacles to test infrastructure even beyond the taxing demands of nuclear fallout. And everything is being tested, even those areas of a full-on military response one may not automatically think of. Take the public affairs office—ordinary men and women who could one day receive a call and have, sitting upon their operating table, a patient challenging to even the most jaded and professional of spin doctors—who not only needed to take care of me and any other real world requests, but also set up notional websites, Twitter feeds, and other modern media organs. While I was there, they filmed a notional news promo and handled real world VIPs, including high-ranking generals and foreign officials who came to partake in the unique knowledge only something like Vibrant Response can provide sans actual tragedy.Public affairs was part of the TF STB (Special Troops Brigade), one of five major subsets of TF46—as a whole a federal Command and Control CBRN Response Element (C2CRE), the enterprise Vibrant Response is meant to test. Here’s the C2CRE’s alphabet soup structure: At the top is TF46 itself, run by the 46th MPs and under the direction of Major General Burton Francisco. Below the major general are five task force subsets, TF Operations (TF OPS), TF Aviation (TF AVN), TF Logistics (TFLOG), TF Medical (TF MED), and the aforementioned TF STB. Operations controls troop movement and the boots on the ground, while Aviation handles the helicopters. Logistics, unsurprisingly, looks after all logistical aspects of TF46, both personnel and equipment, while medical needs not covered by medic units in TFOPS go to TFMED. Finally, TF STB, in addition to the public affairs officers (PAOs), included other special categories which did not fit neatly into OPS, including communications, military police, and intelligence.In the event of an apocalyptic scenario like the one notionally faced in Indiana, this is the brain and body DOD would theoretically place at the discretion of the civilian response efforts: a fleet, well organized, thoroughly drilled mechanism designed specifically to guide us through our greatest fears. Few things are as America—and as thoroughly, dick-swingingly American—as our armed forces. Pitting the great machine, the fruits of the most productive and fertile military-industrial complex in history, against existential, world-ending nightmares … there’s something romantic about it. Perhaps one can even find comfort in that forest of acronyms and flowcharts—proof that, here, look at all they have thought of! planned out! we are safe...[[{"fid":"6690791","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]This is not, after all, a conference seminar meant to placate, nor a pamphlet distributed to middle-schoolers (Make a plan. Prepare a kit. Be ready. Tell your family). This is for the people on the ground, the majority of whom are National Guardsmen, our first option when ineffable disaster strikes, and our best chance against the end of the world—or at least as fine a facsimile as the federal government can buy.*With the sun still sunk beneath the cornfields that served as the area’s slotted green backdrop, the 208th Chemical Company began the load-up for their convoy, which consisted primarily of transport trucks with flat, tall cabs—resembling a herd of chasmosaurs or, perhaps, particularly large and ugly mahi mahi—as well as a handful of Humvees and the silver conversion van. Following the yellow route to the MUTC, the convoy seemed too big for its surroundings; thundering slowly down county highways, past endless cornfields tall enough to obscure the van and numerous homesteads that dot the fields like flotsam in a verdant sea, I was struck by the unusual nature of it, this massive drab line carrying an authoritative-bordering-on-intimidating air, yet stocked with good-natured guardsmen, people who spend their days as rural deputy sheriffs or in steel mills—who would charm anyone, in that particular Southern way, through their combination of Godly hospitality and blasphemous gallows humor, on their way, ostensibly, to do whatever they could to save lives, without a firearm or round in the entire caravan. It will not be the career military member or even the active duty solider—what we instinctively think of when we think of the Army—who will respond to disaster. No, it will be someone a shade closer to the police and firefighters and EMTs already on the ground, denizens of a world closer to those of the victims to whose aid they’re coming.The convoy rolled into Muscatatuck, its borders demarcated by the broken and abandoned vehicles serving as sign posts along the road. We drove past the beige façade and empty windows of a United States Embassy, past apartment complexes belching chemical smoke and trees dripping with wraiths. We pulled to a stop beside Boatman Road, where the initial disconcerting feeling I felt staring at the rigid, phony dead was pushed aside, as it would be by the guardsmen, by an adherence to procedure and professionalism—in this case, SSG Davis and I tweaking camera settings to account for the fog—and waited, staring out across the vast wasteland that had once been home to the Muscatatuck State Development Center (colloquially referred to as the insane asylum, mental institution, etc.).Across the macabre lagoon sat the urban core, a collection of apartment buildings and residential homes, a subway, chapel, and five-story hospital, and a destroyed parking garage, an impressive avatar for the real world. What it looked like, really, in spacing if not design, was a college campus—a little too sparse for a real-world city, but genuinely disconcerting in its empty, cadaverous look, dressed up with bed-sheet bulletins and crowned with smokers. Our operations area would be less urban, consisting primarily of a trailer park, oil refinery, and electrical substation—a rural/industrial landscape bordered on its far end by a prison and soccer stadium.We were shook from our startled reconnaissance by the howling of sirens; piercing through the fog like adjule eyes, the angry whites and cherries of firetrucks and ambulances rounding the water, driving somberly past at eardrum-quivering proximity. The trucks would roll through periodically, their wails constant to the point of saturation, until the sirens were nothing more than background noise, incapable of rousing the fears they once did—a defanging of stressors that was, of course, the reason for their presence here.Orders received, the 208th, along with the 1171 Medical Company of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Battle Creek’s 460th Chemical Company, moved to our operations area, the aforementioned outskirts. Bounded by the city to our east, the prison and stadium to our south, shanty towns to our north, and the rural expanse of Indiana to our west, this sparse and fearful wedge, which the MUTC designates as its industrial/municipal district, district six, was to be our own personal slice of Abaddon for the day.All three units were tasked with the primary mission of clearing the district of survivors and fatalities, assessing the threats, locating the “displaced civilians”—read: victims—and decontaminating them, then moving them to the proper medical and staging facilities. Those three components were split amongst the 460, 208, and 1171, respectively, and SSG Davis and I would get to bear witness to an entire operation, and see, at the most personal level, our hope against horrors.*Beep … beep … beep … beep … beep …This sound would be easily lost among the ubiquitous guttural ambience of engines and generators and the dull knife of the sirens had SSG Davis and I not followed the Gator utility vehicle it emanated from away from the laundry complex where the 460th, 208th, and 1171st were stationed, down a gravel path past a megalith of rubble, shipping containers-cum-obelisks, and an abounded train car, to the mouth of the trailer park. The noise was coming from a smallish box atop the Gator, and it was the most important sound in the entire drill; this small beep carried in it more weight than all of the fire trucks and helicopters combined, because if it stopped beeping and began to wail, that would mean the chemical detector had found … something.[[{"fid":"6690796","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Soundtracked by the metronymic everything-is-OK alarm were ghostly figures straight out of science-fiction nightmares heading down range into irradiated district six: ill-fitted white bags whose approximate human shapes only made them more disturbing.These were members of the 460th, insulated from the deadly radioactive mien they were notionally facing, and performing reconnaissance duties in district six, including identifying potential hazards and helping civilians. Their alien appearance was due to their level C personal protective equipment (PPE), i.e. hazmat suits, which, in the case of level C, consisted of hooded chemical resistant suits, chemical resistant gloves and boots, half masks, and air purifying respirators. At first sight, they were legitimately unsettling, skinless beings with their eyes locked behind glass and their mouths and noses now a black complex of plastic and hoses, feet of sea foam and hands of squid ink, wrists and ankles bound in yellow tape.I would become as desensitized to the suits as I was all the other terrifying stimuli of Vibrant Response. They were necessary for anyone heading down range—into the areas irradiated—and in the decontamination units, and did not only look menacing, as the high sun and upper 80s wreaked havoc on those in them; on the day before my arrival, Hell’s heat had claimed a number of real-world victims, and at the first sign of more to come today, the exercises would be postponed for two hours to allow for hydration, meals, and rest.It seemed to me that the members of the 460 would be particularly at risk, taking their suits deep into the radioactive heart of district six. While there, their missions would be twofold.“Our job is basically, we’re sending a couple teams down,” Second Lieutenant Melissa Rennucci told me and SSG Davis. Everything about 2nd Lt. Rennucci, from her crisp, informative demeanor to the tight, perfectly delivered explanations of her and her charge's orders, was voltaic; she seemed to me to possess a regal bearing which belied her junior officer’s ranking—had you put her and more senior officers in a room, sans rank insignia, I'd think her the top brass—a notion that was later validated, unprovoked, by SSG Davis. “We’re going to find if there are any other hazards in the area—that could include any chemicals, any TICS and TIMS44Toxic industrial chemicals/Toxic industrial materials—and once we find that, we are going to see if their are any other casualties down there, and bring them back to safety.”The debridement of district six could only be achieved by first identifying the various hazards, which, for a CBRN recon unit, are as ubiquitous and invisible as the very air that through their purifiers they breathe.TICS and TIMS are not the only dangers the 460th would face, and they would be responsible for any other hazards as well, including pinning down the radiological threat. “We are going to try to mitigate any risks, if there are any.” 2nd Lt. Rennucci said. “We will find out and identify any potential hazards that may be there so that we can make it a safe area … If we did find some type of contamination, let’s say, we would actually take samples of it, and we have equipment that can identify what it may be. We can find out with liquid or gas; we can find out the presence, what the radiation is, as well, if it’s uranium, plutonium whatever. So each survey team that goes down has all this different equipment that will go with them, because we have all these different things that we can detect like upper and lower explosive limits in the air.”Once the evaluation and mitigation of the hot zone was complete, then the 460th could move on to the most important aspect of their mission—the retrieval of survivors and the dead. Displaced civilians come in two sweeping varieties, ambulatory, i.e., capable of walking on their own power, and non-ambulatory. The latter were removed from the scene via sled, a metal stretcher with a two-wheeled axle on chest-high legs at its center which looks like an amusingly lazy LEGO creation but is, in fact, a sophisticated, easily portable system able to fully and safely restrain victims and allow for rapid movement across inhospitable terrain.Whether on sleds or their own two feet, those found by the 460th among the empty husks of what SSG Davis, through personal experience, ventured were re-purposed FEMA trailers and the Muspelheim of the oil refinery would end up in front of the abandoned laundry building, where the 208th and decontamination awaited them.On the dirt path between the two, a bikini top sat flattened and sullied, like a conjoined jellyfish.*As a real-world disaster is around the clock, so, too, is a notional one, and the constant stress and fatigue of the real deal cannot be simulated if you’re getting a good night’s sleep. Every TOC in TF46 operated 24 hours a day, including the main TOC at Camp Atterbury. A National Guard training camp, Atterbury’s residential rows lined with khaki, olive-roofed houses served as host of the main tactical operations center for the entirety of Vibrant Response; all notional and real-world tracking and decisions took place here. The morning after my roughly 17-hour embed with the 208th, I made the trip from FOB Jennings to Atterbury for a tour of TF46’s TOC from Lieutenant Colonel William Humes of the 46th MPs.The TOC looks like they do in the movies, albeit not as romantic—uniformed personnel sitting at rows of desks, laptops and cups of coffee before them. At the front of the TOC stood a variety of screens, which were being used to project various maps, mission data, live TV news, and weather conditions. Weather tracking is another notional/real-world obligation: it would affect the path of the nuclear plume in the drill, and of course must be monitored for the storms of the Midwestern summer that could provide real danger to the BOGs.[[{"fid":"6690806","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]LTC Humes gave me a brief overview of every TF in the room, beginning with the PAOs, who occupied a little quadrangle of desks right inside the front door. The PAOs were busy going through photos that had been shot the previous day, and showed me their notional websites and Twitter feeds, as well as the TV spot they had been filming with Major General Francisco while I was at MUTC. Next to the PAOs was another subset of TF STB, Intelligence. In the case of a civilian emergency, intelligence would gather information on the operating area just as they would in combat; discovering that a bridge was out, for example, or which roads are un-passable, or where looting had been spotted (looters or other criminal elements, by the way, would be handled by local law enforcement, as it is something of a crime for the military to fire on US citizens). In the case of a nuclear bombing, intelligence would also be tasked with discovering who perpetrated the attack, and if other attacks were forthcoming.The majority of the TOC was given over to TFOPS, TFAVN, and TFMED, an entirely notional unit of medial enterprises that had never left home in Alabama. The communications center, due to lack of space, was in an air-conditioned tent outside the main TOC building, while TFLOG, with its massive responsibilities, had a room of its own in an adjacent building. Both of these satellite TOCs had liaisons sitting in the central command.The 46th will be relinquishing command of Vibrant Response, LTC Humes told me, and returning to its command/control duties for military police. While daunting, LTC Humes and the 46th seemed not only up to challenge but excited by it, which can truly be the only emotional state that could rend success from impossible terror. The excitement lay, I gathered, in the mutable nature of disaster—“With civil actions, everything is in the air,” he told me, in opposition to the more rigid structure of traditional combat—but also in the knowledge that they could serve their country and its citizens in a tender, personal way; that they could comfort and heal rather than just retaliate and avenge.*William M. Arkin, writing for Gawker, points out the obvious absurdities in the military practicing a scenario built around, say, nuclear devastation—a rather romantic and remote disaster, albeit among the most pressing imaginable—rather than the catastrophes Title X forces are likely to face, amongst them hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes … the whole dread panoply of Gaia gone wild.Using the 2015 version of VR (one year after the one I’m detailing here) as his jumping off point—in which Kansas City, Missouri, is nuked by a terrorist group known as “El Zahir”—Arkin lays out his case against such apocalyptic ends being met with military means:I've heard all of the arguments over the years as to why these exercises are important: the military should prepare for the worst, that by practicing military-civil relations this is the way to preserve civilian control, and, most perniciously, that there is no harm.Arkin's argument is that by always focusing on End of the World scenarios, we waste time, money, and, perhaps most importantly of all, precious thought, consideration, and planning on playing Michael Bay. He goes on:But ten years ago Hurricane Katrina exposed the real life danger of a government focused on the extreme at the expense of the expected. FEMA was shown to be a patronage-led amateur hour and the Department of Homeland Security was out to lunch on a terrorist watch that was redundant with everything the intelligence community and the FBI was already doing.There is, in essence, a finite amount of time between any given disasters to ensure that we are ready to handle them; it would stand to reason that, while preparing for the worst case machinations of humanity is not an entirely un-prudent use of those precious days, it would be, from a probability standpoint, not the most practical or efficient, the drilling which could theoretically save the most lives. There is, too, the dread notion that this is all merely the Apocalypse Machine winding up, the old politics of fear being used not only to protect citizens but squeeze cash from them as well.While the sunken domiciles of Boatman Road are an obvious response to the failure in New Orleans, the fact that the government was once again preparing for nuclear devastation rather than natural begs the question: are we preparing for the right end?In a recent horrifying New Yorker feature, Kathryn Schulz profiled true impending doom: the inevitable loosing of the Cascadia subduction zone fault line, an invisible first cut—running from outside Cape Mendocino, California, to Vancouver Island—of a violent surgery which will rend the Pacific Northwest. Schulz described the immense power that is to be unleashed by the unthinking machinations of home's floating shell:When [not, one notices if] the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.Tsunamis will flood the northwest and Japan, a great cataractal tongue devouring the land and the pathetic constructs of those who live on it, and the result will make Katrina—much less Boatman Road—look like a mere tidal pool.“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” Schulz quotes FEMA Region X (the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, basically) director Kenneth Murphy as saying.All of which is to say, this is not only The End of the World, true, real Hell, but practically a scientific inevitability.So why are we worried about nuclear bombs in Indiana?*The walking dead55As one of the 208th called them. come shuffling in, faces streaked in carmine, clothes in dirt, shuffling and dragging and hung across sleds; they cry out in the distance, kept warily apart from the unaffected, the safe, and as they are waved in, a timid flock, they lurch disconcertingly towards help. Tainted in notional radiation, we are at the part of the drill where the victims, having been located, are finally aided. Help consists of two long lanes of tents, sitting atop a great, clear, plastic tarp, upon which is placed gridded floor paneling and berms. It’s called an MCD—mass casualty decontamination—and it would be the key component of any CBRN response. Under the direction of Captain Michael Johnson, the 208th was hard at work assembling the MCD when SSG Davis and I had returned to our embed unit after observing the 460's reconnaissance. “We’re able to [decontaminate] a great number of causalities more quickly and properly than any other military assets that’s out there,” Cpt. Johnson said, his low voice easy to lose amongst the constant tumult of DOD operations.[[{"fid":"6690811","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The foundation prevents the contaminated water the MCD produces—and there is a lot of it—from soaking into the ground. It’s instead diverted via sub pumps to massive orange bags the guardsmen called blivits, which swell like mosquito bellies with 1,200 gallons of contaminated water apiece, and are then emptied off to the side, leaving, in theory, almost no ecological footprint. There were two lanes in the 208th’s MCD, ambulatory and non; the ambulatory lane’s tent was divided by a white plastic partition into male and female sides, while a series of rollers allowed sledded suffering to be rolled through the non-ambulatory side, a casualty conveyor belt. Running at full capacity, the lanes could handle roughly 40 ambulatory (walking on their own power) people per hour, with the non-ambulatory number halved.Each lane consisted of three sections: one for undressing (the clothes are cut off in the non-ambulatory lane) section; one for washing and rinsing; and one for monitoring, where radiological scans would assure every person was suitably clean. From here, the survivors were passed to the 1171st.“We are a medical organization,” 1171st Captain Tim Finley said. He had the body of one of those semi-tall, not-too-thin types who work in running stores and have actual singlets to race 10Ks in, and his black, angular sunglasses completed the look. “We come with EMTs, doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, a social worker. Basically our task is to set up a treatment area on the back end of the decontamination lane so that displaced civilians can come through and if they have any medical issues, we can render a small amount of care and get them staged to get transported to a reintegration area or a higher echelon of medical care.”The 1171st’s treatment areas consisted of an array of tents abutting the decontamination lanes, with pocketed bandoliers of medical equipment labeled by type of injury. This is where the triage would take place, assessing the displaced civilians’ medical condition and tending to their needs accordingly.(The dead, for their part, are left until the living can be processed, then go through a similar decontamination/identification/evacuation process.)“The goal is to get them to a civilian medical facility,” Cpt. Finley said, a simple objective whose complexities, and time sensitivity, require an orchestral response. “It’s a big joint effort, between the incident commander and the transportation officer. The transportation officer specifically will help coordinate civilian assets, federal assets; the National Guard, active components, so we have all these elements here on site today. You’ll see civilian ambulances, you’ll see National Guard helping out with military vehicles—we have a couple ambulances we can use—it’s a real joint effort out here.”Most visually stunning were the Army's air evacuation capabilities, which were being put through their paces at Vibrant Response as well; a Black Hawk sat in the field between our operations area and Boatman Road, blades spinning in whining wait, matte black and far larger on the ground than above your head. Another helicopter had brought with it Major General Francisco and a swarm of PAOs, out to visit the troops and film a notional news report. When I asked him about the Army’s preparedness should an event like this actually happen, he responded with the kind confidence and lack of hesitation expected in a two-star general.“There is no doubt that if something were to happen—God forbid—the Army would be ready.”The 460th, 208th, and 1171st looked ready, the lone hitch in the great saving machine seemingly coming from the heat casualty stoppage. Only when I was back inside the silver van on the way out of Muscatatuck did I find out that, in the 208th’s eyes at least, the exercise had been an incredible disappointment. “That was about the slowest we’d ever done it,” SSG Robert Johnston said. “The worst we’d ever looked.” This, it seemed, was chalked up to it being the Alabama unit’s first time working with the Michiganders, and it could take weeks, maybe even months, SSG Davis told me, for units who had never met before, much less worked together, to mesh efficiently; add to that the cultural barriers, and the fact that guardsmen only run through these sorts of drills—though not on this scale, obviously—about once every quarter, and the roots of SSG Johnston’s anger, as well as the ostensible necessity of Vibrant Response, become apparent. It speaks to something—professionalism on their part, or ignorance on mine, but assuredness on the Army’s side regardless—that I had had no idea something was off until someone told me about it.A few days later, SSG Davis called me and informed me that the a day or two after, the three units had gone out again and completed a similar mission—albeit with the tasks shuffled—in half the time.
Featuring Kazuo Ishiguro
Exploring the dark with Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Buried Giant.
‘If the Camera Moves it’s Got To Be for a Reason’: An Interview with Roger Deakins

One of our greatest living cinematographers on his latest project, Sicario.  

Nobody shoots movies as well as Roger Deakins. He is without question our greatest cinematographer: an exemplar without comparison. A twelve-time Academy Award nominee, longtime partner of the Coen brothers, and indispensable collaborator of, among others, David Mamet, Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese, and of late Denis Villeneuve, he is incapable of capturing a lacklustre image. His work is probably stamped in your subconscious whether you realize it or not: think of Bond’s luminous entrance by boat in Macau in Skyfall, of Tim Robbins standing in the downpour in Shawshank Redemption, of Steve Buscemi digging through the snow on the side of the road in Fargo—all Deakins. He makes a strong case for us to consider the director of photography as auteur. His presence alone is reason enough to see a film.The latest Deakins glory is Sicario, another collaboration with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve that concerns the efforts of a mysterious American task force to take the war on drugs into Mexico. It opens in wide theatrical release this week—to almost universally rapturous praise, even—after enjoying its North American premiere last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was there that we had the privilege to sit down with the maestro to talk about his methods and affinities—though I couldn’t resist leading with a more pressing question. * Calum Marsh: Why are you so much better at your job than everybody else?Roger Deakins: [Laughs] Well, what is best? Define “best.” It’s rather like that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thing: define “quality.” You can’t. There’s no such thing as best. What’s the best shot? What’s the best lighting? There’s an infinite number of ways of doing things—and some just connect with an audience and some don’t. Some have a particular kind of individual way of expressing what’s in the script and some don’t. But what’s best? I don’t know.Okay: let’s say best in the way that Caravaggio is the best.See, I don’t think Caravaggio was the best!  I’m sorry, but not my favorite. Edvard Munch, I would say, is the best. Not Caravaggio. It’s not just about chiaroscuro lighting. It’s not about that. Leaving best aside, then— Good.What do you think when you see other films? Most films aren’t beautiful.It depends on the film. I watch things sometimes and I think, “Oh my god, I can’t do that.” They make me feel completely useless. But then some films I watch and think: why do they bother? But that’s natural, isn’t it?Is it that some directors simply don’t care?I think it has a bit to do with the way filmmakers approach filmmaking these days. There’s a certain body of filmmakers who just stick up multiple cameras on zoom lenses. There’s a certain body of filmmakers for whom it’s about the coverage, you know. For me it doesn’t matter: I have a different sensibility, I suppose. One thing about working with the Coen brothers for a long time is that they don’t shoot stuff they don’t want. It’s very precise. Everything is storyboarded and everything is thought out. Everything is really considered. You get there on the day and you can do anything as well, but it’s all very, very considered in pre-production and on the day. The few times I’ve worked in situations where it’s not been like that, I think the work shows.I spoke to Denis Villeneuve a few years ago, when Prisoners was at the festival. And I spoke with him about working with you. He gave me the impression that with you he’s quite ... deferential.No! We bandy things around. He’s very sweet, but it really is a collaboration. We go back and forth. With anybody I’ll say my opinion: I don’t think I’m there just to keep mum and push a button. It’s always a discussion, you know. I suppose I do have a thing about ostentatious camerawork or any extraneous move. If the camera moves it’s got to be for a reason. And I will say: watch a Bresson! He doesn’t move the camera because he can’t find a reason to do it, so why should we? You know what I mean? More and more I tend towards that kind of … it’s not just simplicity, but it’s focusing on what’s important in the film without any extraneous nonsense.A lean style, then—no fat.Yeah, yeah.On the other hand, there do seem to be shots in Sicario that are … well, not showy exactly, but let’s say stylistically pronounced. At one point, for example, there’s a bird’s-eye-view shot of an airplane taking off. I’ve never seen anything like that before.That was Denis. We talked about that, but Denis was with the helicopter cameraman while I was doing a pre-light that weekend. [Laughs] But we talked about that. The shadow is CG.I’d wondered about that. I was thinking, too, about the one everyone loves: the static shot of soldiers receding into the distance in front of a blazing orange sunset. It’s held for an unusually long time.People say that the film has got a tension to it. When you think about that shot—I mean, because he holds it, and the guys disappear, and then he still holds it with nobody in the frame—it builds a tension that normally would be done, or a filmmaker would attempt to do, with a lot of cuts. But this is building tension just by holding a shot, and that particular shot because it’s the idea of the darkness and where we’re going. There’s a great storm shot, too—a long shot when Benicio Del Toro on the Mexican highway, and there are these storm clouds rolling in from the distance. Right, yes, with the cop car.Happenstance?The storm was really there. We were told to wrap because this severe thunderstorm was coming in. Basically Denis and I stayed there with a camera as people were wrapping up and just shot that.How do you reconcile these sorts of happy accidents with the precision and planning you were saying you value so much?I mean, when we were planning and talking about the film in general, we imagined it being obviously quite colorful, especially as a contrast to Prisoners, for instance. We wanted to use the blue skies, but we thought it would be these very empty skies against harsh landscapes. Of course when we were actually shooting it we were in this active monsoonal season in New Mexico, so we got these incredible skyscapes. We just said, “Well, we’ve just got to go with it,” and I think it adds something very interesting to the overall look of the film. But it wasn’t expected. We didn’t have that at the beginning, when we shot the raid on the house: that’s still quite bald and I think that’s good. But gradually you get these intense, interesting skies. It’s there so you use it.I suppose you could just CGI in whatever sky you’d like now.That’s the scary thing. And people know it. You shoot something real and people say, “Well, that’s not real anyway.” A few years ago I did a movie and someone said it was all CG, even though it was all done in-camera. People can’t judge anymore.I find myself doubting, too.And, well, it does go on, the reverse. When we did Unbroken, people said, “Oh, how did you get all that?” And I said, “Well we didn’t have a plane that flew, we did it all on stage and it’s all blue screen and composites.” So it’s good sometimes.There’s a great shot right at the beginning of dust particles suspended before a window in a thin shaft of light.Yeah. That whole opening was a bit of a struggle, just trying to figure out how to get that. We wanted something that took the kind of curse off the SWAT team coming, but we wanted to get a sense of foreboding or something.Not computer-generated dust. Real dust! We put dust in there to make it work. That was something that Denis thought: there was the shaft of light coming through the window and he suggested we perhaps see the merest shadow going past.And the dust returns later.Yes, when Emily is lying in bed after the whole thing and she’s watching the dust particles.One more shot: the thermal and night vision sequence. Was that a post-production effect?No! We used a night vision system and a thermal imaging camera—we got a company that makes this scientific camera for basically specialist situations. That whole sequence was hard, because how do you show this at night when they can’t see anything? That’s why they’re wearing these enhancing systems, because it’s so dark. It was all going to be night vision, but Denis wanted to know if there was something else we could use. That’s when we discovered we could use thermal vision—and then combine them, so you know that the thermal was what Alejandro was seeing and the rest was the team. We decided we should do the whole scene that way because it’s the only way it makes sense. Unless you had just a shot of black and said that was the objective view of what was going on.There is of course the classic “movie dark,” where it’s just sort of blue.Yeah, exactly. But it doesn’t make sense. If they could see and you could see then they wouldn’t be wearing these silly things. There’s one shot, where the guy comes in and draws his knife and is walking into the tunnel, and it’s an objective thing, really dark. And astonishingly beautiful.And we thought, well, that’s the only shot that’s going to show what it’s like if you’re not wearing one of these enhancing systems.The whole thing reminded me of a video game, clichéd as that sounds.In the sense that all war now is like a video game, yeah. And though you say it’s like a video game, it does add to the kind of confusion that they would be feeling. Then you have these aerial shots—which are actually kind of CG, because the aerial shots are just a negative of a daylight shot that looks like that—but that gives you the geography of what’s going on. 
Meaningful Games in September

The Toronto Blue Jays making the playoffs for the first time in 22 years provokes the familiar pull of nostalgia, but much has changed for city and team alike.

It seemed a little unwise to fully celebrate until the Blue Jays were solidly in the playoffs. Not because of superstition (it probably wouldn’t have jinxed them), but because of the perils of ignoring history (the 1964 Phillies and 1995 Angels actually happened). Even if the combination of wins and losses needed to clinch a playoff position is called the “magic” number, it is still irrevocable, elementary school math.Twenty-two has been the number mentioned most during the second half of this season. Twenty-two years, that is: the length of the Blue Jays’ playoff drought, and a go-to subtopic since it became the longest in baseball when the Kansas City Royals ended their own drought last year. The topic is fortunately now closed: on the other side of the playoff bracket, the Chicago Cubs’ 107-year World Series drought is ongoing, and the Jays share their own city with one of the most famous droughts in its respective sport—this is notoriety better left unshared.11Furthermore, other Major League Baseball teams simply have their own problems: eleven have championship droughts longer than the Blue Jays (they know who they are); ten have longer pennant droughts than the Blue Jays (they know who they are); and eight more—all of whom except the Tampa Bay Rays existed before the Blue Jays’ last title—haven’t been to the World Series at all (they really know who they are).The Royals are returning to the playoffs a year after losing game seven of the World Series, but there is no guaranteeing they will make it that far again. The Pittsburgh Pirates are back in the playoffs for a third consecutive appearance after their own twenty-year drought, but with no guarantees themselves. Cubs fans are ecstatic while simultaneously horrified at the thought of a one-and-done. There are no guarantees for the Blue Jays this year—or next year, for that matter. There are never guarantees. A baseball fan learns to hope not for home runs, but for quality at-bats. For all but the most spoiled of baseball fans (historically, Yankees; lately, Giants and Red Sox; bit of both, Cardinals), the heart’s desire is encapsulated by four words: “Meaningful Games in September.”I’d wanted to see the Jays host meaningful games in September since the first game I saw at SkyDome22At SkyDome’s 25th anniversary last season, the Jays brought back Domer, the stadium’s mascot, to hang with Blue Jays mascot Ace. Back in the ’90s Domer palled around with BJ Birdy, the Jays’ longtime avian avatar, before Birdy’s messy divorce with the club after he turned into some sort of populist rabble-rouser. It’s kind of a weird story., late in the 1996 season with the club a distant thirteen games back. Seemingly long gone were the glory years themselves: following the interruption of the 1994 strike, not too many of those Blue Jays remained. Carter, Olerud, and Sprague were in the lineup, as was World Series MVP Paul Molitor—but for the small difference that he was in a Minnesota Twins uniform (talk about a less-begrudged return as a visitor: you can’t). Guzman, Timlin, and Castillo were still with the club, as were Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado (though neither rookie had made the stacked postseason roster in 1993). The team itself was on the cusp of switching to the Roger Clemens-era uniforms, and to Roger Clemens himself (cantankerous, yes, but not yet an outright villain). The game itself took only a Buehrle-esque two-and-a-half hours as Pat Hentgen tossed a complete game.The new uniforms look like the old ones, but they aren’t, not quite—style cycles return as modernized forms of the original. Consider those other Toronto landmarks, the Kids in the Hall: the throwback plaids and side-parts they wore in early ’90s Toronto have been back yet again; the Headcrusher might have bought his glasses from Warby Parker.The attendance on that lazy Wednesday evening was still over thirty thousand, just a bit below the Jays’ season average, and still above the league average. Ninth-best, in fact, and ahead of the soon-to-be-champion Yankees. Trailing only the defending World Series-winner (Atlanta), teams that had just made the playoffs in mostly nouveau-retro stadiums (Baltimore, Cleveland, Colorado, Seattle, St. Louis, and Texas), and teams having the fortune to play home games in Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles).By the World Series years, the Blue Jays had been playing meaningful games in September for a while—and without the Wild Card—winning the division in 1985, losing it on the final day to Detroit in 1987, finishing two games out in 1988, winning it in 1989, finishing two games out again in 1990, and winning it again in 1991. Since the glory years, Toronto has finished within striking distance of the division only once (four-and-a-half games out in 2000) and in second place only once (though at ten games back in 2006, it hardly mattered). It is meaningful games in September, and the memories of meaningful games, that have brought the fans roaring back. Despite being a game under .500 at the All-Star break, the Jays completed their final homestand with the club’s highest attendance since 1995.Die-hards are welcome to look askance at the bandwagon jumpers, though most of them are simply showing solidarity with their town. In a way, though, it’s these prodigal fans that have the most instantaneous memories of where they were the last time, chipped from the amber along with their Dave Stieb jerseys. What they were doing. Where they were living. Who they were living with. How things were simpler; how things were cheaper. The face value on that 1996 ticket was $23; the same seat now costs $75. According to the Bank of Canada’s index on purchasing power, it should cost $32.90. The only things that have inflated that much since are, well, player salaries, franchise values, broadcast deals—and, of course, houses. 1996 was the valley for average housing prices in Toronto, while the year SkyDome opened, 1989, was the previous peak. In recent years, as a relative pointed out, mansions that had long ago turned into apartments are turning back into mansions. Back then, security going into the ballpark didn’t make you feel like you were going to the airport. Then again, going to the airport wasn’t yet like trying to enter the White House.While the returning fans reminisce, the die-hards start to share other memories. Pouring one out for the Blue Jays who never played a playoff game in Toronto. Carlos Delgado, of course, and Roy Halladay. There are also the memories of meaningless games in September. Games you wouldn’t trade for now, but still, kind of miss. During the 2012–13 offseason, after the mega-trade with the Marlins that begat the trade for Dickey—and later the trade for Tulowitzki—the Blue Jays stopped offering the Ballpark Pass (née Fan Pass: Toronto’s sub-$100 nosebleed season ticket and the best deal in baseball) to new customers. Existing pass-holders had a grandfather clause, but most expect that next year, they’ll just be grandfathered. Maybe you don’t fund a hundred-million-dollar payroll with Tuesday night fans in the cheap seats who often bring their own food. But for a lot of Tuesdays in the last two decades, those seats would otherwise have been empty. For a lot of Blue Jays who had made their best plays on an off-night, the cheers they heard were theirs.The team has clinched the division, but no one knows if this is 1985 again or 1992 again. And there’s no guarantee that 1985 will be followed by 1992 this time around. It may seem like everything is back again, but no matter what happens, everything will be different. The spiritual rebirth of the team might have been the evening in 2011 when the rumour went around Opera Bob’s that the Jays were going back to the old uniforms. That they would stop breaking them out as a cynical nostalgia promotion, and actually go back to being a franchise that went for it. The new uniforms look like the old ones, but they aren’t, not quite—style cycles return as modernized forms of the original. Consider those other Toronto landmarks, the Kids in the Hall: the throwback plaids and side-parts they wore in early ’90s Toronto have been back yet again; the Headcrusher might have bought his glasses from Warby Parker. But the between-sketch bumper footage shot in Super 8 (itself shorthand for nostalgia) also captured details of a city that were already disappearing. Things Torontonians passed daily, until they didn’t. Back in the ’90s, switching from the Bloor-Danforth subway line to catch the streetcar downtown (maybe to a Jays game), there was always that people-mover in the long underground passage in Spadina station. Gone for years now, I remember it as the best way to enjoy the buskers, because you could stand there and still be on your way. Someone told me recently it was the perfect length for one cigarette. Maybe this was known.
‘I Don’t Know if I’ll Try to Answer ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’’: An Interview with Artist Ben Sisto

The delightfully complicated history of a hook. 

Described as “terrible,” “annoying” and “one of the worst songs ever,” “Who Let The Dogs Out” recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. With its release in 2000, the single, and, most notably, the hook—a series of infectious barking sounds—helped the Baha Men transition from a relatively unknown band from Trinidad to a global phenomenon. Quickly becoming a popular anthem, the 2001 Grammy Award-winning song appeared in television commercials, Disney cartoons, and was a mainstay at sports events, even inspiring “The Dawg Pound Rock,” an, ahem, “interpretive” dance performed at football games. Despite the withering response from music critics, “Who Let The Dogs Out” is reminiscent of the fun and frolic of Carnival, a boisterous and colorful parade and street party that is a mainstay in Trinidad. The gravitational pull towards the hook makes it a classic earworm: love it, hate it, or merely tolerate it, you can’t get out of your head. But its history, it turns out, is much more complex than the music-factory origins of most hit singles.A decade after the song was released, Brooklyn-based artist Ben Sisto happened to come across its Wikipedia page, and it piqued his interest. The marketing manager, who produces arts programming for ACE Hotel’s New York City location, focuses his practice—seen also in 2014’s gallery exhibition, Used Books, and his Second Life film, 2009’s Duck Rotation—on reconfiguring previous works of art for open source reinterpretation. He applied that practice to the song, collecting archived materials and conducting a series of interviews with artists involved in both the original and remixed versions. His curiosity led him to curate an exhaustive website, released to the public on July 25, 2015. Who Let Who Let The Dogs Out Out chronicles his five-year exploration into the sample that would eventually become the single. It also serves as a useful educational tool and a cautionary tale for musical artists who are interested in sampling.In his online project, Sisto delves into the song’s history and, in doing so, raises some interesting questions about feminism, sexism, and the social and legal implications of cultural and musical co-opting. By using “Who Let The Dog Out” as the focal point, he looks at what happens not only when originators aren’t acknowledged for their contributions, but when a sample is used in a way that radically alters its original meaning.* Laina Dawes: What inspired you to focus on this song?Ben Sisto: I’ve always been interested in open source culture, free culture, and Wikipedia—the sharing of knowledge online. When I have free time, I spend a lot of it going through Wikipedia articles and end up going down wormholes, clicking on a link to see where I end up. There was this period of time where I was in between jobs, and I was going to the New York Public Library every day, and on one of these Wikipedia digs, I came across the entry for “Who Let the Dogs Out.” One of the first things I noticed—and the page has changed a bit since then—I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like, “This song was first recorded when performed live off a float during Carnival by ‘Keith from the salon Smile.’” There was no citation, but that is how Wikipedia pages work. I like esoteric projects, so I decided to find out who Keith was, thinking that it would be something funny I could tell my friends who are into similar things. But when I talked to Keith on the phone, he was super nice and shocked that I called him up to talk about it. There was something about asking someone one little question and then having him or her give back more than what was expected that felt really good. It was just a cool feeling to gather knowledge that wasn’t publicly known. During our conversation he mentioned someone else’s name, so I thought, “I’m going to have to look that person up.” And it seemed that every time I looked someone up, there were two things that didn’t make sense, or two people would tell me stories that would contradict each other. I really started to obsess over this idea. Where did this song come from? Because it’s such an integral part of my youth and others in my generation. That’s how it started: vague interest in an esoteric way of learning stuff, and then it rabbit-holed.On the site you pose the question: “Is this a feminist song?”It depends on the version. From what I’ve researched to date, there are two potential origins. One of them originated from this group Miami Boom Productions from a demo called “The Two.” That is definitely not a feminist version. From the interviews I’ve done with them, they basically say, “We were teenagers. We wanted to make Miami Bass music and it seemed like the way to do that was to talk about how much ass we got.” There is a bravado that makes it more tongue-in-cheek. The version I traced the hook back to is performed by Sandra Gillette and 20 Fingers, and she also did the song “Short Dick Man.” That entire album is feminist, regardless if you like the song or not. I had a long conversation with one of the record’s producers, Manny Mohr, who specifically wanted to make a response to songs of that era, like “I Beat my Bitch with a Bat” and “Hoes in this House.” So her hook is, “Who Let Them Dogs Loose?”Anslem Douglas’s [songwriter of the 1997 single “Doggie,” which was later recorded as “Who Let The Dogs Out”] version is also feminist in nature, as it was a response to the sexism that he observed in Trinidad around the time he first performed it. I haven’t interviewed him, so I can’t confirm his intention, but it must have been weird to hear later versions in which the meaning was so contextually different from his original intent. Douglas’s version of the song contained “Skettel”—Trinidadian slang for “whore”; it was used in Disney cartoons, as people never bothered to decipher what the lyrics really meant. The Baha Men version has this tone of, “I’m a dog, I’m coming for you,” which is performative behavior for the enjoyment of other men. In the other version by Chuck Smooth, who also claimed ownership of the original version, his song is 100 percent misogynist in tone. You describe this project as a “living document.” Why not just write a book?I wanted the ability to make corrections or additions in real time as new facts come to life. Instead of printing revisions and corrections, I’d rather, when people go to the site, the information is the most current. I guess I could have done it in some Wiki format that would make the corrections more transparent, but I like the contemporary style of the web templates, and wanted to make sure that if someone cites information on the site they are aware that there is potential for change.The legalities surrounding the origins of “Who Let The Dogs Out” are a little confusing, but your project seems focused more on the popularization of the hook than the actual song.The hook is really interesting to me because in relation to copyright law, it combines different parts of prior art that have commercial potential. If you just put out a song in which someone yelled “Who let the dogs out” with no barking sounds, people would be like, “Meh, there’s something missing.All of the legal cases are centered on that idea. A Los Angeles court has just recently ruled that “Happy Birthday” is public domain. I’ve given previous talks about “Happy Birthday,” which is similar to “Who Let The Dogs Out” in that something new has arisen based on prior art, and people claim ownership of that prior art despite there being no paper trail. A lot of times in copyright cases, the big guys win because they have the money to go to court. If I have a case with Warner Music, they can just hold me up in litigation until I back off.I don’t know if I’ll actually try to answer “who let the dogs out,” because contextually, in most versions of the song, “dogs” represent “men” and men, who have always been in power, have actually never been contained to begin with. Specifically in how the lyrics are presented, there has never been a point in history where these aggressors have been “let out.” They have just been there from the get-go, so it is not super interesting to me.Is there a danger for the next generation of artists as far as not knowing the legalities surrounding appropriating art?This is a case study, and based on your personal feelings on copyrights, it could serve as a warning or it could be positive. Personally I don’t believe in originality. And because of that, sampling is a really odd concept to me. I believe that cultural artifacts and things are always relational.Obviously, you are sampling someone and they aren’t getting recognized or receiving royalties for their work—that is a valid argument for some people to make. For me, I just don’t have any desire to be held up in litigation. It’s not worth my time.I like sharing this information, and have the luxury of a solid day job that doesn’t have to have anything to do with my art practice. For me, it’s easy to say about my project, “this is a public domain. Please share,” and it fits more in with my affinity with art as a gift in sharing economies. I wouldn’t say I’m worried about future generations. I think that it’s freeing that people are not obligated to know the history of everything.My hope is that people use materials responsibly, I would just caution people—I’m not a journalist, but I would hope that people put out material that is respectful of everybody, as factual as possible.What is your plan for the future of this project? There are so many layers to this story, and so much useful information for musicians on the legalities of copyright and sampling. I would like to consult with editors, even people I’ve met over the years who edit books and magazines, to pick their brains to try to create a roadmap for verification—how to properly cite things, and then to do a sweep back to everyone I’ve talked to, to check in to see if there is anything else they would like to add to the project. Outside of emailing a few friends to let them know about this weird project I did, I’m not actively pursuing how to shape this into other formats right now.During the time I’ve worked on this project, I’ve given public presentations at various venues in New York City, including at a law school. A lot of the archiving has been filtered through a very DIY setup in my house. I put a record down, take a picture, scan it and name the image. It definitely needs editors to go through to ensure that everything is documented correctly. I’d rather just see it out there, than not.
Rahawa - PSmag

Erasure is a prickly topic for members of the African diaspora. We want recognition, we who have lost so much to attain it and are severed from those who know this best. I still look for my country every time I see a globe. Did we exist yet? Were we our own? It is a validation I can’t stop myself from seeking having grown up in a state intent on its own destruction.

Erasure is a prickly topic for members of the African diaspora. We want recognition, we who have lost so much to attain it and are severed from those who know this best. I still look for my country every time I see a globe. Did we exist yet? Were we our own? It is a validation I can’t stop myself from seeking having grown up in a state intent on its own destruction.-Rahawa Haile, Pacific Standard: "A Low and Distant Paradise"
Behind the Draped Mirror

Covering mirrors while in mourning has a curious ambivalence: both ritual and superstition, a way of honoring the dead and warding them off, a vow that hides within the fear of something going wrong.

When Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in the East Room of the White House, “the windows at either end of the room were draped with black barege, the frames of the mirrors between the windows, as well as those over the marble mantles, being heavily draped with the same material. The heavy gildings of the frames were entirely enshrouded, while the plates of the mirrors were covered with white crape.” Likewise, when the railroad magnate Charles Crocker died in San Francisco in 1888, all of the paintings in his house were turned to the wall. The custom of draping mirrors and paintings with black mourning ribbons was most commonly practiced not in Holland in the seventeenth century, but in England and America in the nineteenth. Draping mirrors and paintings with black borders, or in some cases covering them up entirely, is one of the recurring features of Victorian mourning culture, with its peculiar obsession with the trappings of death.The Victorians had a great love of such grand, ostentatious gestures, and had gradually evolved mourning itself into a display of wealth and status. As James Stevens Curl writes, “the expressions of social position and status [are] found in coffin-plates and -handles, in hearses, in mourning-cards, and in dress. They are found among the faded, discoloured mementoes of another age (a past that in many respects seems infinitely remote), and include black-edged mourning envelopes and stationery; immortelles or artificial flowers protected by glass domes; embossed patterns around verses of a lugubrious nature; and dried, colourless leaves from wreaths long collapsed to dust.” The draped mirror was only one gesture in a whole panoply of mourning practices. Particularly in an age defined by excessive mourning—in which one could never have too many black ostrich plumes, too many pages bearing wands in front of the casket, too many black silk scarves or coaches with horses—the simple act of draping a mirror threatens to fade into the background noise of a cacophony of grief.But this practice of covering mirrors with fabric extends far beyond the Victorian period. In parts of Germany and in Belgium, it was long customary to cover mirrors with a white cloth because it was thought that if a person saw his or her image in a mirror after a death in the household, that person would die shortly. In different parts of China, mirrors are immediately covered upon a death, or turned upside down. “The Suni Mohammedans of Bombay,” writes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, “cover with a cloth the mirror in the room of a dying man and do not remove it until the corpse is carried out for burial.” According to Frazer, covering mirrors or turning them to the walls appears in England and in Scotland, in Madagascar and in the Crimea, particularly in Judaism, one of the few cultures in which it still persists to this day.*W. G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn ends, “Sir Thomas Browne… remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.”It is an odd sentence, curiously conditional: up until this point the novel is sure-footed, as Sebald’s narrator walks through the Norwich countryside, revisiting the past and tracing themes in Browne’s writing—but here is this sudden moment of indecision, a lapse in memory from an otherwise confident narrator. The effect on the book as a whole of this stammering in the final line is a calling of attention to a failure to locate or remember this citation, the passage now lost.In Judaism, covering mirrors is not dissimilar from rending one’s clothing: a display of humility and an avoidance of vanity, focusing all of one’s attention towards the dead. But Jewish sources also speak of ghosts.The draping of mirrors appears in Prudence Punderson’s needlework masterpiece, The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality. Punderson completed it sometime in the early 1780s, shortly before her death. It displays, from right to left, Punderson’s birth, her adulthood, and her death, and is noteworthy in that it places as its center a woman engaged not in domestic chores but in artistic pursuit, and features an African slave prominently integrated into the home life of a white family. But it also shows, above the coffin of Punderson, a mirror draped in a white cloth, suggesting the practice was well-entrenched in the United States long before the Victorian era.There seems to be no universal reason behind the custom. Reginald Fleming Johnston, documenting this practice in China in 1910, claimed that the reason mirrors are covered is because “if the dead man happens to notice a reflection of himself in the glass he will be much horrified to find that he has become a ghost, and much disappointed with his own appearance as such.” Johnston also notes that for some, there is a belief that “every mirror has a mysterious faculty of invisibly retaining and storing up everything that is reflected on its surface, and that if anything so ill-omened as a corpse or a ghost were to pass before it, the mirror would thenceforth become a permanent radiator of bad luck.”A 1964 survey of North Carolina customs offered a slew of sometimes contradictory explanations: mirrors must be covered otherwise whoever looks into the mirror will be seriously sick during the year, or because if you see a corpse’s picture in the mirror there will be another death in the same house in less than a month. You should cover the mirror in a house where there’s been a death because the soul of the dead person wanders around for three days, and it should not see itself in the mirror—if this happens the mirrors will tarnish and never be clean again, or in days to come the mirror will turn and make a picture of the dead.Sometimes people simply don’t know. In 1773 the Scottish Reverend George Low visited the northern Orkney islands, and, questioning locals about their funerary customs, confessed: “I know not for what reason they lock up all the cats of the house, and cover all looking glasses as soon as any of the family dies, nor can they give any satisfactory account of it.”*Judaism is one of the few cultures that still practices this tradition, and because of this (as well as a long tradition of exegesis and explanation), Jewish explanations for covering mirrors have often been seen as authoritative. Mirrors are covered in a house during shiva because one must never pray before a mirror—a centuries-old prohibition meant to prevent one’s concentration being broken. A second reason is closely related: if one prays in front of a mirror, it may appear that the person is bowing to him or herself, and during mourning one focuses on the deceased and avoids all appearances of vanity. Covering mirrors is not dissimilar from rending one’s clothing: a display of humility and an avoidance of vanity, focusing all of one’s attention towards the dead.But Jewish sources also speak of ghosts. The Talmud mentions that mourners need special protection from evil spirits, and that looking into mirrors not only leads to arrogance but also gives power to evil spirits. Some have argued that mirrors are covered in a house during shiva because evil spirits are commonly found in homes where a death has occurred, and that during shiva spirits can most easily attach themselves to the reflections in mirrors, so they must be covered or turned around.The ritual prohibitions—such as not wanting to appear vain, rending one’s clothing, etc.—have to do with turning the focus to the dead rather than the living, ensuring that her or his memory is enshrined. The superstitious reasons, however, involve an opposite motivation: we fear the dead, fear the power they continue to exert over us, and so take steps to ensure that they do not continue to haunt us, that they leave us quietly and do not return in mirrors or in other ways. Draping a mirror after a death, depending on how you look at it, is either to protect the dead or to protect the living.The period of mourning is always delicate, temporally speaking. The procession from death to the afterlife is represented in many human cultures as a journey, sometimes including a psychopomp like Anubis or Charon, a ferryman to guide us on our way. A one-way trip to a new destination, it is at the same time a process of forgetting, a baptism in the River Lethe. Mourning involves not just guiding the dead on their way, but encouraging them to forget, all the while reminding ourselves—those left behind—to remember. Memory, you could say, is a thing that only belongs to the living. Grieving is presented as a gift: we, who are left behind, will now bear the burden of remembering; you dead may go on your way, free from that terrible obligation of memory.The covered mirror is a gesture with a curious ambivalence: bearing the traces both of ritual and of superstition, a way of honoring the dead and warding them off, a solemn vow that hides within the fear of something going wrong.Mirrors, with their distracting reflections, along with paintings that may display earthly wealth, are dangerous to the extent that they disrupt this travel and this process of forgetting. Mirrors must be covered so the dead don’t accidentally remember what they have been asked to forget. This motivation is perhaps as important—and certainly more primal—than the promise that we will remember our dead.The covered mirror, then, is a gesture with a curious ambivalence: bearing the traces both of ritual and of superstition, a way of honoring the dead and warding them off, a solemn vow that hides within the fear of something going wrong.But all memorial practices harbor some degree of ambivalence. Sebald himself, writing of his visit to the graves at Piana in Corsica and their endless rows of soldiers’ monuments—each inscribed simply with either Regrets or regrets éternels—remarks that “like almost all the phrases in which we express our feelings for those who have gone before, it is not without ambiguity, for not only does the announcement of the everlasting inconsolability of the bereaved confine itself to the absolute minimum, it also sounds, it one stops to consider it, almost like an admission to the dead of guilt, a halfhearted request for forbearance made to those laid in the earth before their time.”All of Sebald’s writing, one way or another, is attuned to the questions and tensions of mourning, and the subtle contours by which it takes shape. When he references Browne’s comment on draped mirrors and paintings, Sebald focuses specifically on taking care of the dead, keeping them from getting distracted as a gesture of kindness, of helping ease the transition of the dead from the burden of remembering towards their new life free of memory.But Browne never wrote the line Sebald quoted; scholars can’t seem to find any reference to draped mirrors inPseudodoxia Epidemica, or in any of his other writings. The citation that ends Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, of mirrors and landscape paintings draped with black silk, it would seem, is an invention cut whole from cloth.In fact, as I discovered a few years ago, the source of Sebald’s anecdote comes not from Browne, but from another work from the same period: Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy—a work that shares many of the same affinities, particularly its obsession with mourning and melancholy, and which influenced Sebald as deeply. There are good reasons, artistically speaking, for this sleight-of-hand: ending with a reference to Burton rather than Browne would have of course destroyed the equilibrium of the text as Sebald has constructed it, disrupting the constant refrain to Browne. Additionally Burton, despite being the source for this custom, writes from a different temperament than Browne, less prone to reveling in grief and sadness. In his catalogue of all the causes of melancholy, Burton minimizes many, including what he felt to be the kind of excessive grief that might lay low even the most composed of great men. As he writes midway through the second volume of the Anatomy, “we do not forbid men to grieve, but to grieve overmuch…. I require a moderation as well as a just reason.” Burton saw a great deal of nonsense in the notion that the dead might look back wistfully on what they were about to leave behind. “For what is there in this life, that it should be so dear unto us? Or that we should so much deplore the departure of a friend? The greatest pleasures are common society, to enjoy one another’s presence, feasting, hawking, hunting, brooks, woods, hills, music, dancing, etc.; all this is but vanity and loss of time, as I have sufficiently declared.”*A few years ago, the theologian Zvi Ron set out to trace the origins of the practice of covered mirrors in Judaism, to finally establish the provenance of the ritual. He discovered that the earliest rabbinical mention of the practice dates to the eighteenth century. The ritual of overturning mirrors has in fact quite a different origin in Jewish theology—an older practice known as kefiat hamittah, the ritual act of overturning the beds in a household where a death has occurred. The practice of overturning beds is an ancient one, for which a few reasons are offered. One: man was created in the image of God, but this image was “overturned” by human sin, and thus to represent this we overturn our beds. And second: the marital bed is the facilitator of new life, and so in the presence of a death it must be overturned. Other rabbinical authorities also note the connection between overturned beds and turned mirrors: “both act as reminders that intimate relations are suspended during the shiva; furthermore, mirrors are an expression of vanity and should not be used in a house of mourning.”But since references to overturned or covered mirrors predate the Jewish explanations, and appear in such far-flung locales, Ron ultimately concludes that it is most probable that Jews adopted this tradition from their neighbors, and that Rabbis gradually incorporated it into the tradition in order to both honor these folk beliefs and to codify them.Even as we make a pact with the dead, promising to bear the burden of memory so that they can be free to forget, we know that it is a pact that we are always breaking, that we cannot hope to keep forever.The actual origins of the practice, then, seem to have been forgotten. Or, put another way, so many different explanations have been offered as to create a kind of cacophony that makes the true origins extremely unlikely to be recovered. Wherever it originated, it seems to have had such an immediate and strong resonance that it was adopted by a wide variety of peoples for different reasons that overlap but are not identical.Our inability to trace the origins and meanings of such mourning rituals suggests that we sometimes carry out practices whose meaning we do not know and could not hope to know or to understand. It is often the physical act of the ritual itself, more than any possible meaning behind it, which matters. The ritual act itself is something of an empty vessel: it holds whatever we put into it, means what we want it to mean. We no longer remember why we began to do it. And yet it is a practice that is often explicitly about remembering, about not forgetting, about bearing the burden of remembering so that the dead can let go of their memories, so they can forget the beauty of their lives and move on into that other realm.But even as we make a pact with the dead, promising to bear the burden of memory so that they can be free to forget, we know that it is a pact that we are always breaking, that we cannot hope to keep forever. Perhaps this standard is too high to set; perhaps we should not agree to perpetually remember, that this obligation on behalf of those departed is itself a kind of life sentence. If the draped mirror has two meanings—if we seek not just to honor the dead but also to protect ourselves from their wrath—this is because we know secretly we are incapable of honoring our promises, and that the departed, having been forgotten by us, are now forced to remember, and to return to haunt us.Our relationship to the dead, I cannot help but thinking, perhaps mirrors the story of two mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who, in 1985, tried to summit Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. After Simpson broke his leg on the ascent, the two realized they could not go further, and Yates began to lower Simpson via a belay rope. But as the snow and fog settled over them, they became confused, lost, and Yates ended up inadvertently lowering Simpson over the side of a cliff. With all of Simpson’s weight now on the rope, and Simpson himself unable to climb back up to safety, Yates began to realize that his own strength was ebbing, meaning both men would soon fall. And so Yates decided, finally, to cut the rope holding his partner, sacrificing his friend rather than kill them both.That moment in which Yates cut the rope must have been emotionally unbearable, beyond agony, and yet to free himself of the great burden of Simpson’s body dragging him to his own death must have brought with it an exquisite relief—bordering, perhaps, on ecstasy. Here, perhaps, is an appropriate metaphor for our relationship to the dead, and the pleasurable relief that comes in that moment of ultimate betrayal.I read the story of these two mountaineers years ago, and while I can no longer recall the fate of Joe Simpson, the man who went over the cliff, for years Yates was remembered among mountain climbers simply as “the man who cut the rope,” a fate he had to suffer with all its attendant guilt and disdain from those climbers who of course assumed that they would never, in similar circumstances, make such a decision. As though any of us knows well in advance the course we will take when confronted by death.This, anyway, is how I read Sebald’s act of false misremembering at the end of The Rings of Saturn, as something akin to the pleasure that comes with betrayal—a betrayal of the dead for whom he has promised to accurately and faithfully remember; a betrayal of Browne himself, who, as a faithful reader, Sebald has willfully misrepresented; and a betrayal of his own reader, to whom Sebald has presented himself as a trusted and accurate source. All while admitting and even welcoming the pleasure that comes from such a betrayal, from the lapse in memory, even if that lapse is itself fictional, and has to be imagined by a mind that is condemned to remember far too much.Grief and memory mirror each other, writes Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, and, as with one stepping back slowly from a mirror, gradually our grief fades with forgetting. This is one of only two times in the entire book that Burton mentions mirrors; the other, of course, is the passage that Sebald misattributes to Browne at the end of The Rings of Saturn. Or so I thought for many years—for I can remember clearly discovering the passage in that labyrinth of Burton’s book, just hours before meeting a former student for coffee, so that, when she arrived, The Anatomy of Melancholy on the table between us, I told her with great joy the results of my literary sleuthing, my uncovering of this rare secret. But in preparing these notes I have gone back obsessively through my copy of Burton trying to find the reference, and I regret that, despite my best intentions, I have lost the passage.
‘A Little Outside the Gates of Hollywood’: An Interview with Bruce McDonald

Talking with the Hard Core Logo and Highway 61 director about his new film, Hellions, the joys of a hard-ass editor, the miseries of Can-con, and the inherent strangeness of childbirth.

It’s been six years since Pontypool vaulted Bruce McDonald into the pantheon of Canadian horror greats. This week he returns with another in the same style: a low-budget, hallucinatory home-invasion slasher called Hellions, arriving in theaters after its premiere at Sundance last January. But horror still seems an odd fit for McDonald—at least among those who know him better for his indefinable ’90s classics, such as the off-kilter road movie Highway 61 or his punk-rock mockumentary Hard Core Logo. It was for these sprawling, vigorous Can-con curios that McDonald earned a reputation as one of the country’s foremost indie directors, a legacy that endures in surviving video stores and in the furthest reaches of late-night TV. For me, McDonald’s opus is Twitch City, the two-season Toronto-centric sitcom he made in the late ’90s for the CBC: a cult object if ever this country has produced one, it remains something of a crown jewel of the national broadcaster.Hellions enjoyed a special presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks before its theatrical release across North America this weekend. We caught up with McDonald during the chaos of the fest to discuss his career and the legacy of his best-known hits.*Calum Marsh: I should start by saying I’m a huge fan of Twitch City.Bruce McDonald: Oh no way! I’m seeing Don, Molly, all of them, weirdly, over the next month.Working on another season, I hope.You know, every once in a while we sort of vaguely go, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…,” but nobody’s really seriously thought about it. But you kind of think, why not. Don [McKellar]’s been doing a lot of TV: this show Sensitive Skin and this other show, Michael Tuesdays and Thursdays. They made that show years ago and then brought them back to make some more. And of course, Callum Keith Rennie…You’ve also been doing mainly TV over the years, yes?Yeah, I mean, between getting projects ready of our own—I don’t know how other people do it—but I’ve got to live so I’ve got to work. I’m lucky that I get to work in TV and there are lots of different shows that I’ve done. It doesn’t matter too much to me what it is, you know? This week we’re in a fake spaceship in Etobicoke. Great! Now we’re in the Southern Alberta foothills. Wherever. But there are always good people that you meet. I met the [director of photography] for this new film on a TV show I’m doing called Cracked. I could tell by what he was doing—his method, his eye—that, wow, this guy was fucking amazing. We were doing shit where we were like, “Well, we’re going to get fired.” I just love this guy. Television is where you meet people in this country.Is the process much different for you, between TV and movies?A little bit. It’s very fast-paced: TV, you’re grinding out eight pages a day or whatever. As a director, generally, you’re there to serve the writer no matter what, I think, whether it’s a feature or a TV show. But on independent movies, as a director, you get to do what you want. You don’t have somebody whispering over your shoulder—there’s no writer or showrunner going crazy wondering if you can get more coverage or do this or that. But television, compared to independent film, has many more resources. You got techno-cranes and stunt guys. It’s sort of like doing a commercial. On some shows, money’s no object: you’re like, “Uh, can I get a couple techno-cranes for this? To shoot Bob coming out the convenience store?” And they say, “Oh yeah, no problem.”Does that make you flashier on TV?On certain shows! If they have that inclination. That can happen, but it’s fun: you can play with the toys. You inherit these different styles, though. You’re not there to change the show. They don’t want you to change it too much. But if you bring some dessert they’re happy about that.I have a friend working on a show for the CBC now, and he was telling me about these show bibles, with the rules of the show.Yeah, yeah. The bible will say, you know, we don’t do hand-held on this show. Or when there’s a close-up it looks like this and not that, or that and not this. They’ll have these parameters and you think, “Well, if that’s how you want it.” Or they’ll say that you can never do one take of something—that they demand two takes. I don’t know exactly why. Everybody has their strange little rules and ways of doing things. But generally it’s fun and very entertaining.So I was voting in this Canada’s Top Ten poll recently. Highway 61 was on my ballot. And of course Hard Core Logo ranks highly always. What is it about these movies? Hard Core Logo, especially, is a cult film and a Canadian classic.People love that movie. Love that movie. It’s very rewarding to hear that people have fond recollections of some of those movies. It’s hard to say why, though. I always thought with Hard Core Logo that it was the remarkable chemistry of those four guys: they were an iconic band. It was the perfect storm of casting—people believe them. It’s a peculiar local truth. We all know those guys. And for Canadians it’s refreshing because you can tell it’s not an import: it’s domestic, it’s homegrown. Eat locally, you know? People feel part of it more than the import, I guess.I remember feeling growing up that Hard Core Logo was the first Canadian film I’d seen that was cool.[Laughs]People don’t always have the best impression of Canadian movies and TV.Oh yeah, because they’re going, oh, it’s Anne of Green Gables: that’s Canadian film and television. Grandma likes it, and Becky who’s five likes it, but I’m seventeen and I fuckin’ hate it.But Hard Core Logo is rock and roll. It’s punk.I think people were surprised at the time that Canada would make a movie like that. Rebecca, the star of the movie, said that she used to work at a video store in Seattle and that Hard Core Logo and Highway 61 were the films she thought were cool—a little outside the gates of Hollywood. It was at the beginning of that independent film movement that started with Soderbergh in the late ’80s. It was the same wave that was a very exciting time for independent film. There was independent film before that, with people like Cassavetes, but it seemed more sporadic. I don’t know. But maybe because of DVD or technology or something, I’m not sure, a lot more people wanted to make them.And what about now?There are many more made. You talk to some of these programmers from Sundance or wherever and they say they’ve screened something like five thousand movies. What?! How is that even possible? So it’s changed. There’s much more of a desire for movie stars, too. I remember when we started, we barely knew professional actors, let alone a movie star. We put Joey Ramone or Jello Biafra or someone in our movie. But there wasn’t that pressure to get the guy from Three’s Company or the guy from a popular something to be your star. To me that felt like a different sort of pressure: We’ve gotta go beyond our Molly Parkers and our Callum Rennies and go get Jake Gyllenhaal. Nothing against these people, but I like the idea of working with these little groups of people all the time until they become your theatre troupe. I don’t know what else has changed…Digital.Right, well, it’s never been easier to make a movie, in terms of the actual mechanics of it. It’s been freeing and exciting and really incredible. A small theory of mine, and I don’t know if holds any water, is that because you can do everything yourself, you tend not to have bigger bands of people making movies. So the checks and balances are different. When you’re just on your own and you’ve got your camera and your laptop and you can cut it no sweat, there’s nobody there to say, “Hey, wait, is that really…?” When you have your band, your brain trust of five or ten people that are not only ideologically but economically invested, there’s more of a dialogue. They can tell you that this is a shitty approach, or that this scene just isn’t any good. There’s more talk. You’re not as critical when you’re fewer people. Not to say that somebody can’t do it all on their own and be a genius. But people are led to believe that so much and maybe sometimes things are done when they shouldn’t be so easily.I get you. I prefer an editor who will call me on my bullshit.Yeah! I want a hard-ass editor. Let’s take this script apart and put it back together. I’d rather do it at the table with two people than fifty people standing around on the set waiting for us to figure this out. Or worse, being in the editing room and realizing that you have a problem you could have fixed on the page but now can’t. You can’t just go out and reshoot something. I’m a big believer, more and more, in the story and the script. Because back then it was a bit harder to do it—you needed more money and cameras with actual film in them to pull it off, [and] within that there were always people challenging you who helped. There are so many films now. You need your film to be good from the beginning so it can stand apart.That’s true. You go to a film festival like TIFF and you’ve got four hundred films. All you’ve got to go on is the logline and maybe one still. So you’d better hope you’ve got something that distinguishes yours from the others.That’s right.Pontypool is a film with an irresistible hook.The English language is infected with a virus. It’s like, what the fuck? Yeah! That’s what hooked me when I was introduced to the book: it was that one sentence, which was fucking great. What a nutty, crazy, beautiful thing. Plus there are zombies, and who doesn’t love zombies.What was the attraction of the new film?It was a fever dream. I read it as about the greatest terror of a teenaged girl: it wasn’t so much about the conventions of the creature-feature so much, it was more about a girl who is seventeen, who is pregnant, and who is terrified. To me this is the nightmare she has on the night she gets that news. As a young woman, what weird shit might you think about and what terrors might you imagine? It seemed very real to me. We’ve all grown up with this or had girlfriends or girlfriends’ girlfriends who have.It seems like you make the idea of childbirth inherently strange.Yeah, it’s nuts. It’s science fiction. We’re like the pod people. It’s like alien possession. What is this thing? Probably Cronenberg would be the guy to talk about that: about the body going cuckoo on you. There’s a bit of The Brood going on in this movie, and this idea of body horror: Inside the Black Belly of Dora Vogel—I was trying to pitch them on that title. They just wanted to go for it. But that’s totally what we should have called it.I’d watch a movie with that title.I would totally watch a movie with that title—and before I’d watch a movie called Hellions.
Phillips - Robot sex

Is it absurd and depressing to feel deep feelings for a consumer product? Are the feelings themselves the product? Does it say something optimistic about human nature? Does it say something terrifying? Life is very large. Under the right circumstances, you, too, could fall in love with a toaster.

Is it absurd and depressing to feel deep feelings for a consumer product? Are the feelings themselves the product? Does it say something optimistic about human nature? Does it say something terrifying? Life is very large. Under the right circumstances, you, too, could fall in love with a toaster.-Brian Phillips, Grantland: "We Are Living in a Robot Moment—Rejoice, Cower, and Copulate?"
The Girl King of Boylesque

Lou Henry Hoover is a force in boylesque, the traditionally male offshoot of the traditionally female world of burlesque. He’s also an outsider: Hoover is the drag persona of the dancer Ricki Mason.

On a Thursday night in late July, the Atomic Bombshells strut down Commercial Street in the center of Provincetown, Massachusetts, wearing outfits made of yellow and pink cheetah print spandex. In the distance between the Happy Camper ice cream and coffee shop and the lobster roll stand, Lou Henry Hoover, BenDeLaCreme (a drag queen who won Miss Congeniality on RuPaul’s Drag Race), Kitten LaRue, Ruby Mimosa, and Mr. Gorgeous scan for the willing or persuadable.P-Town is one of the oldest gay vacation destinations in the United States. BenDeLaCreme calls it “the city where soft serve meets sodomy,” and periodically children with ice cream cones do stop to gawk at the group. It’s “family week,” and the burlesque show the Bombshells are promoting is—sort of—family friendly. There’s no actual nudity or bad language. “It would go right over their heads,” DeLaCreme says, sweeping a hand over six inches of firmly secured wig to demonstrate.“Jungle Boogie” plays on a portable speaker as Lou Henry Hoover hands a flier to a middle-aged man. "Come to the show tonight," he chirps, smiling as he walks past."I think that one was really a girl," he tells the woman next to him.Here is the hurdle Ricki Mason must constantly leap across: how to get a random guy and his wife to see her onstage persona, Lou, as more than a stripping girl in a moustache.A classically trained dancer with a sweet, expressive face, Lou Henry Hoover is one of the most well-loved personas in boylesque—burlesque strip shows starring male-identified performers, sometimes in drag but typically not—and also one of the most unusual. Not just because of the dance-school pedigree, but also because Lou is the drag persona of Ricki Mason a person who feels female (albeit what she calls “a real peacock of a butch”) in her day-to-day life and male when dancing (and stripping) onstage.We expect stripping to reveal more about a person’s gender. This isn’t what happens when Lou performs. Somehow, wearing fewer clothes brings greater freedom to play with identity. Without pasties or a g-string, Mason-as-Lou gets to “invent what nude means.” Sometimes it’s a balloon cock and a dickey; on other occasions, “nude” is a binder, a glued-on codpiece, or a strategically placed beer bottle.A mix of dance skills, charisma, and unusual gender presentation has made Lou a celebrated outsider in the burlesque world—a performance community that revels in its own outsider status. Because Lou doesn’t fit perfectly anywhere, he’s had the opportunity to take the stage pretty much everywhere. But the farther and wider Lou performs, the less likely it will be that his audiences have spent time thinking about things like the politics of queerness, or gender identity in drag performance.On the streets of Provincetown, people of all ages swarm BenDeLaCreme. They are star struck. She was on TV, after all. But professional gender-benders have always had a tenuous relationship with the wider public that sees drag as no different from a Halloween costume. At best, they’re embraced but largely misunderstood. At worst, they’re mocked as sad, cartoonish approximations of actual men and women.*Six weeks earlier, Ricki Mason had been preparing for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender competition—the burlesque world’s Academy Awards. Snaps had to be sewn, pompoms purchased, and glitter glued before Mason and her wife, fellow Atomic Bombshell Susanna Welbourne, also known at Kitten LaRue, could pack seven outfits into six suitcases for the trip to Las Vegas. One of Susanna’s wigs would fill an entire bag.At close to eight in the evening, Mason walked to Beauty Curators on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. In cut-off jean shorts and an oversized Madonna T-shirt, she carried a Styrofoam head somewhere in her cluster of shopping bags. The store had just closed, so Mason knocked on the window and a woman with a high, shiny ponytail opened the door.Mason had done burlesque once before; dolled up as a pretty lady, she says the strip tease “didn’t feel powerful” to her the way it did for some women. But then she created a boylesque act where she was an angel who was becoming human to be with his lady; stripping in drag offered “a secret key to a new place.” The shelves are lined with building materials for New York City’s nightlife looks—bottles of hair product, brushes and combs, and a rainbow of hair extensions. This is Home Depot for drag queens. Mason’s wig designer, Marco, was at work in the back. Matted and crushed hairpieces waited for rehabilitation on the table behind him. He was worried that a wig made from Barbie heads might not be ready in time for this year’s Gay Pride celebrations.“You want to try?” Marco presented a chestnut pompadour, like a fuzzy wave crashing above the forehead. Mason’s hair—a lighter brown, flatter version of the pompadour—was already under a flesh-colored wig cap.She twisted in her chair to inspect the back and sides in the mirror. Staring back at Mason is Lou, an earnest, all-American guy who tries hard and fails harder, whether he’s a cowboy, a Romeo, a disco dancer, or a clown. Mason has been performing as this perpetual underdog, the delightful and unflappable loser with a heart of gold, for more than seven years. By now, she is simply “Lou” to many friends and fans.In the back of Beauty Curators, Mason and Marco fussed over the wig, pulling down the sideburns and pressing the puffy, pretty-boy upsweep into shape. Lou wears this wig during a cowboy-themed act called “Wanted,” a number he and Kitten would perform during the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender’s “small groups” competition. In pink western wear, Lou and Kitten rob a bank, shoot some guns, and tear each other’s clothes off before losing all the money.In Vegas Lou would also compete against three other dancers for the title of King of Boylesque. As far as anyone can remember, Lou is the first drag king boylesque competitor in the pageant’s 25-year history.*It hasn’t always been chest binders and glitter mustaches for Ricki Mason. Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Mason was the youngest child in a family of four with strong ties to the military. When she was nine, her older brother left home for the naval academy. For a while she wanted to go too, and her parents were thrilled. “You’ll love it there,” they encouraged. “There’s a glee club.”Performing soon took over her adolescent life. She’d been taking dance classes every day, dreaming of studying musical theater at the University of Michigan and dancing in Fosse, but she didn’t make it into the program. At Michigan, she settled for and then fell in love with modern dance, where every movement has a precise meaning and intention.After college, Mason moved to Seattle to front a modern dance company called LAUNCH. The city is home to a vibrant community of drag and circus performers. Far away from people she’d grown up with, Mason felt freer to express queerness on and off stage, and it was here that she discovered boylesque.[[{"fid":"6690716","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"On the street in Provincetown.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"On the street in Provincetown."},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"On the street in Provincetown.","title":"On the street in Provincetown.","height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Mason started crossing paths with queer performers who formed the backbone of Seattle’s vibrant circus, drag, and burlesque scenes. She’d done burlesque once before; dolled up as a pretty lady, she says the strip tease “didn’t feel powerful” to her the way it did for some women. But then Mason created a boylesque act where she was an angel who was becoming human to be with his lady. “At least that was the story in my head,” she says. Mason wore a suit and angel wings. “I was pretty much an angel taking my clothes off.” Stripping in drag offered “a secret key to a new place.” It was fun to have a persona on stage and Mason loved choreographing to popular music, something the modern dance world discouraged.Mason took the name Lou Henry Hoover after the adventurous, Chinese-speaking former first lady. Many of her performances express the nostalgia, affection, and disillusionment she feels for America. Mason’s brother and sister-in-law had been married at the naval academy chapel when they were both serving in the armed forces. But her sister-in-law came to oppose the war, and was working to help civilians survive when she died in Iraq. Mason choreographed an evening-length modern dance piece about her death.The drag performances are lighter than the eulogy for her sister-in-law, of course, but still draw on classic Americana, especially iconic images of American masculinity. “I wish that the American dream was true,” Mason says. Her costumes, choreography, and the earnest but clueless persona of Lou Henry Hoover reflect this sentiment and her family’s ties to the military. “I wish you could believe that fighting for your country is the right thing and that country songs were true.”Lou Henry Hoover is an affable underdog, a Charlie Chaplin character who tries and usually falls short—as a cowboy, a sailor, a tough guy, or a loverboy. In an early act, Lou was a magician whose tricks all failed. Rather than disappearing, the handkerchief fell through his hand onto the stage.*In 2010, Lou performed the magic act in Provincetown with the Atomic Bombshells, the burlesque troupe co-fronted by Welbourne and BenDeLaCreme. Welbourne had been bringing the Bombshells to P-Town for a month-long residency since 2005. At the very tip of Cape Cod, far from prying eyes or errant travelers, P-Town was home to artists’ colonies and experimental theater groups that brought early 20th-century queers to the area. Today, it’s a destination for gay and straight tourists. With the highest proportion of same-sex couples in the country, the town offers a glimpse of a world (or at least a vacation spot) in which straight people are a minority.With two queer strippers holed up in a beach town so gay it hosts an annual “bear week,” a showmance seemed inevitable. Kitten and Lou had performed together before in Seattle but they’d never had a chance to talk backstage. During the flight to Massachusetts, they chatted nonstop. Mason liked Welbourne, but assumed she was straight. A friend who was performing with them and knew better guessed right away that Mason would be Wellbourne's summer’s hook-up. It happened when they were drunk at the bar, and in the days and weeks that followed they kept it up. “Everyone’s just like dying in love with Lou,” Welbourne explains. “They just wanna put her in their pocket.” When they weren’t performing, the pair would amble down Commercial Street, “sucking face like insane people,” says Mason. The next summer Kitten and Lou performed a duet in New Orleans. Mason suggested a wedding theme, and though it was a statement on Washington State’s marriage referendum it was also a bit of wishful thinking. Welbourne and Mason got engaged in a photo booth the following year. The invitations to their 2013 wedding promised “an extravaganza of wedding eleganza.” Both brides wore ivory accented with teal leopard print. The officiant had a goatee full of glitter and BenDeLaCreme was the wedding’s art director. There were choreographed dance numbers, a bouncy castle, a musical performance by RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon, and more pompadours and beehives than a 1950s prom. The UK Daily Mail dubbed it “the most outrageously camp wedding ever.”While neo-burlesque attracts women looking to be both sexual and subversive on stage, the form also appeals to men who want to challenge gender stereotypes, either through drag, camp, or traditionally gay imagery.Two years later, Welbourne and Mason reflect on the ways they’ve influenced each other. “I upped your style game a little,” Welbourne tells Mason. “When I first met you and Lou, Lou was like, ‘Oh, let me just pop on these plaid pants from the thrift store.’” Mason looks sheepish.Their acts are more polished now. In their cowboy number, “Wanted,” the couple play bank robbers on the run, wearing handkerchiefs across their faces and bright pink western wear accented with fringe and pictures of cacti. Ten-gallon hats fly off to reveal tiny cowboy hats underneath. Lou proclaims his love for Kitten. He strokes her cheek for a little too long and she grimaces and moves his hand to her chest. After stripping down while being chased by the law, Kitten throws the money they’ve stolen in the air, and it rains down over her. Lou gets bitten on the crotch by a rattlesnake.The masculinity that Lou presents is more Village People than Magic Mike. Though being in love with a woman means that we see Lou as a hetero guy, Welbourne insists that the persona “is not an image created for a straight woman.” The military outfits, the sequins, and the musical theater dance moves—“it’s very coded.”They performed “Wanted” at a burlesque competition in Las Vegas this summer. Lou was the only boylesque performer who took the stage. The act plays well to the rockabilly crowd, but Lou thinks the organizers put her on because, to them, she was still a female performer—a girl stuffing her dance belt. “This act has such a candy coated vibe, it doesn’t matter that I’m a drag king,” she says.*An edgy and popular form of strip tease in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, burlesque evolved into what we now know as stripping. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, performers such as Dita Von Teese began to popularize the form in what some call neo-burlesque. More likely to be watched in an art-house theater or cabaret than at a strip club, today’s burlesque performers are often overtly feminist and less commercially minded than their predecessors.While neo-burlesque attracts women looking to be both sexual and subversive on stage, the form also appeals to men who want to challenge gender stereotypes, either through drag, camp, or traditionally gay imagery.The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender competition’s organizers created the King of Boylesque category in 2006, after some male performers had been lobbying to compete for the title of queen. Jo Weldon, headmistress of the New York City School of Burlesque and the co-executive director of education at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, recalls that the category was created as a way to include a more diverse group of performers in what was becoming an increasingly formal event and title.When Lou applied to be King of Boylesque, organizers again had to decide how to embrace innovation while respecting the general desire for clearly defined categories. The burlesque world is overwhelmingly female, and so male performers can have a “novelty factor,” says Dustin Wax, executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. This means they often score higher in mixed gender competitions.Lou’s participation in the boylesque competition has led to some backstage rumblings that a male performer could try to game the system and snatch the title of queen. Weldon, whose stage name is “Jo Boobs,” does not share this concern. Performers should be able to choose which category they compete in. “If a man picks the Queen category and he qualifies, we’ll have to deal with it,” she says. Wax thinks that ultimately it’s more important to embrace creativity than to protect against those few who might take advantage of the contest’s flexibility. When deciding whether to allow Lou Henry Hoover to perform, Wax and the organizers wondered, “Is boylesque about your junk?” No, they decided. “It’s about a way of approaching gender.”[[{"fid":"6690726","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]About 40 people have trickled in to one of those generic hotel ballrooms for a roundtable on gender representation and identity. At the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the King of Boylesque competition is in two days; Jo Weldon organized this panel to quiet any discontent about Lou’s inclusion and foster a conversation about gender throughout the history of burlesque. Though Mason is not trans, Weldon and the contests’ organizers hope Lou’s take on gender roles will lead to broader recognition of trans and gender non-conforming people’s place in the burlesque world. Trans performers have always been a part of burlesque, many people are careful to point out, but because most were stealth, it’s been hard to acknowledge and credit their contributions. An exception is Miss Violet DeVille, an out trans woman who’s also on the panel.When it’s Mason’s turn to talk, she tells the story of how she started doing drag and says she feels lucky that “gender has always felt relatively light to me—it's nice I can be playful about it.”The crowd gets to watch Mason-as-Lou do just that during one of the strongest King of Boylesque competitions in the past few years. The night’s MC is Tigger!, a performer who won the first boylesque competition in 2006 and calls himself “The original King of Boylesque.”Introducing the contest, Tigger! says that “aside from promotion, boylesque is an artificial, irrelevant distinction based on the myth of a gender binary.”“We're all in the same gang,” he tells the cheering crowd.Tigger! doesn’t mention Lou by name—it would have been inappropriate to single out one performer. Instead, he tells the audience he is “thrilled that a drag king has finally entered the game … because this is all supposed to be a variety show. So hats off—and pants off—to variety!"Lou appears on stage, illuminated by a single spotlight. His inch-thick, comma-shaped eyebrows rise and fall. As Cyndi Lauper sings, “sometimes you picture me,” Lou frames his face with his hands. Moving purposefully across the stage he pantomimes walking, “calling to me,” and the second hand of a clock unwinding.The bright blue of Lou’s sailor suit suggests an MGM musical about a young serviceman whose ship is about to sail. The act is wistful and funny, but it is not particularly sexy. After cartwheels, pirouettes, and arabesques, Lou slowly and purposefully peels off his sailor shirt to reveal another sailor shirt. Just as Lou’s dancing threatens to turn sentimental, he scales it back with a hip thrust or a blank look.Removing the rest of the costume is a struggle. Lou is self-conscious, and once he’s made it down to a binder painted with tattoos and a blue and white sequined dance belt, a flash of ass is the closest he gets to nude. Now that this sailor has bared himself for the audience, he celebrates the revelation with a knee slide … only to pull another, identical sailor suit out of his bag. Pompoms fly through, the air, the audience erupts, and Lou puts his costume back on.Mason thinks Lou won the crowd, even though he didn’t get the crown. The act that did win was “classic burlesque,” danced to a medley from West Side Story. The performer, Matt Finish, teased, waved, shook his ass and did the splits. Weldon was in the audience and insists that gender isn’t the reason Lou’s performance, which she called “enormous, wonderful, beautiful,” didn’t win. “Nobody complained to me about Lou except one purist person. I don’t care,” she said.“I’m a queer person, I drew it on my face ... [but] I’m going to present a universally human experience.”During the Weekender, last year’s King, Mr. Gorgeous, gave a step-down performance. He won in 2014 with an ice cream-themed act in which he conceals his cherry-garnished package with fans shaped like pieces of a waffle cone. Gorgeous is six-and-a-half-feet tall and has a silly, self-deprecating style. During the act, he smells his shoes and armpits, recoils in disgust, and then winks seductively at the audience. The crowd reacts to his wholesome good looks, sure, but a winning boylesque performer needs more than sex appeal and “another act with feather fans,” Gorgeous says. At a time when you can watch hardcore porn on your phone while in line at the DMV, a drawn out strip tease with pasties and a g-string is unlikely to grab people’s attention.Gorgeous and Mason have become good friends—they perform together every year in P-Town—and he says he loves “that little moustache and eyebrows on that little miniature man.” Though his career got a boost after he won King, Gorgeous doesn’t think the title is the real point. “In a sense, being in the category and shaking things up is a win,” he says. “Being the odd one out in a community where we all identify ourselves as oddballs, dang, that’s next level.”*Six weeks after the Weekender, in P-Town, the Atomic Bombshells’ show closes with Kitten and Lou’s raucous, frenzied “clown act.” It’s a rare performance in which they wear almost identical costumes. They’re even more in synch tonight because Lou forgot to stuff her dance belt. At first, BenDeLaCreme was hesitant about including the act in the Bombshells’ show—it doesn't reflect the roles that have become the touchstone of Kitten and Lou’s partnership. But the number was a hit at an open mic night for P-Town performers, and both Kitten and Lou seem willing to ditch the gender roles for a good dance number.Some contentious voguing escalates to a slapping fight. They remove tall clown hats to reveal bright orange ponytails that sway back and forth as they dance. During the act’s controlled chaos, Lou isn’t trying to be any particular gender, but putting that clown trope through a Kitten and Lou filter is yet another way to play with identity.All these flexible representations of “girl” and “boy” are formed from the raw material of Ricki Mason’s daily life. Earlier that afternoon, Mason, Welbourne, and BenDeLaCreme had been relaxing in the shallow end of an outdoor pool.“Now you're the boy and I'm the girl,” Mason told DeLaCreme, referring to her pineapple print women’s swimsuit. He demurred. His swim trunks were pink, after all.“But I've got boobs,” Mason countered.“And you love to remind us of that fact,” Welbourne said sarcastically. They often joke Mason is the rare stripper who never exposes her breasts.“Sometimes I wrap them up and sometimes I let them out,” Mason replied before diving underwater like she’d just gotten away with something.Mason is hoping that polished dancing, a precisely drawn mustache, and the perfect amount of glitter, sequins, and pompoms, will charm audiences into embracing Lou. That his performance will make the lines between woman and man, gay and straight, macho and dandy seem etched in eyeliner rather than permanent marker.“I’m a queer person, I drew it on my face,” Mason says, “[but] I’m going to present a universally human experience.”[[{"fid":"6690731","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
Playing the Book, Reading the Game

As video games increasingly adopt the language and pacing of literature—intricate plots, morally ambiguous characters, endlessly expansive worlds—what effect are they in turn having on books?

There was a time when incorporating the logic and perspectives of video games into another medium was little more than a narrative curiosity. That time was the mid-1980s, a period that brought us works such as The Last Starfighter, the sort of film in which proficiency with these newfangled amusements was a sign that one might be ready for full-on action-hero status—that one’s ability to save the universe in a video game meant that one could also save the universe in real life. Three decades later, not only has the novelty worn off, but that earlier era has begun to seem more like the beginning of an ongoing cultural moment than a mildly embarrassing moment in cynical cross-platform marketing history. Video game aesthetics and logic suffused Bryan Lee O’Malley’s mid-to-late-2000s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, as well as Edgar Wright’s 2010 film adaptation. Ernest Cline has worked references to both specific video games and to the styles in which they’re played in his novels Ready Player One and Armada, the latter of which folds in earlier works about video games into a narrative that blended paranoid conspiracy theories with a plot that both critiqued and embraced science fiction tropes of the past few decades. (There’s also Pixels, which wasn’t exactly a universally beloved film, but that seems to be due more to flawed execution than an inherently problematic concept.) Even beyond their influence on greater culture, though, today, video games like the Fallout and Mass Effect series can approach true blockbuster status, both in budgetary terms and audience size. But after over thirty years in the collective consciousness, it’s worth looking at how video games have served as a deeper literary influence above and beyond material for plots and settings.11For purposes of this piece, I’ll leave alone novels set in the universes of specific video games–the Halo, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age series all come to mind.The influence of literature on certain games—intricate pacing, well-developed and morally ambiguous characters—is clear. BioWare’s Dragon Age games owe something of a debt to the novels of authors such as George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, who blend familiar settings with scenarios where no “right” decision exists, and realpolitik is critically important. More recently, the developers of the game Kentucky Route Zero openly referenced their debt to magic realist fiction when introducing their game. Playing the game, this aesthetic clicks neatly: there’s a decidedly lived-in feeling to the narrative, but there are also ghostly bluegrass musicians, giant birds, and mysterious roads that evade discovery—close in tone to the short fiction of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, almost.While rarely at the center of the action, games have become increasingly common as background elements in fiction. One of the threads that ran throughout Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City was an online role-playing game on which several of the book’s characters became fixated. (More specifically, an MMORPG: a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.) Throughout the novel, the sense of virtual worlds and virtual objects becomes itself omnipresent. There are some hints that the novel’s universe is itself a kind of simulation; that it’s set in a stylized, surreal version of Manhattan only accentuates that sense of disorientation.Internalizing the relatively open nature of modern gameplay into fiction, however, isn’t easy. Though there might be moral quandaries in Dragon Age: Origins that evoke morally grey fictional situations, novels don’t allow you the same freedom of exploration. But that’s also a difference in mediums: one is a fundamentally interactive one, and one is a more controlled experience—narrative fiction and nonfiction feature an authorial hand guiding you along, while the recent wave of “open-world” games have allowed players a greater degree of autonomy.22When I compared my experience playing Dragon Age: Inquisition to that of a friend, we noted that we had had wildly different experiences in terms of the characters we’d played and the decisions we’d made. There are some notable literary exceptions, a few of which predate the world of video games, but reading them in the present day comes with a set of unique hazards. I can’t be the only reader who, upon reading Julio Cortazar’s landmark novel Hopscotch, got to the first point where the narrative diverged and briefly flashed back to reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child.33And now I wait for the restless ghost of Julio Cortazar to begin haunting me for this literary sacrilege. The full exploration of a space promised by open-world gaming and the narrative coherence promised by non-experimental narratives may be fundamentally incompatible.The new anthology Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, examines some of the overlap between these sorts of stories. “Exploring video games,” Adams posits in his introduction, “has become one of the primary ways we create and experience narratives.” He also points out that a number of writers (including several contributors to the anthology) work in the video game industry as well, further evidence of the blurring of the lines between the two disciplines.That overlap may be a finite space, however. Tom Bissell has both written about video games (in the book Extra Lives, among other places) and worked as a writer on some games themselves—specifically, Gears of War: Judgment. In a 2013 interview, he makes a case for the delineation between the two mediums:I used to think that games were a great storytelling medium, potentially, and that idiot writers were fucking it up. I don’t believe that any more. I now believe that whatever the purpose of this medium is, it’s not quite to tell stories.That divide becomes even clearer in Press Start to Play. The stories are wide-ranging in tone: some are science-fiction or fantasy in which games are an element around which familiar scenarios coalesce (demonic invasions, alternate worlds, the secretive existence of artificial intelligences), while others riff on specific experiences of gaming (the notion of respawning, or the existential and physical crises spurred by a character creation screen, such as the pain felt by that character as a player runs through different body shapes and sizes). And still others focus on particular gaming communities: Holly Black’s “1Up,” for instance, about a group of friends sent on a kind of text-adventure-based treasure hunt after gathering at a funeral. Of the stories in the anthology that do seem to draw direct narrative inspiration from gaming, the deepest ones come—perhaps not surprisingly—from such text adventures. Chris Avellone’s “<end game>” and Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” both incorporate aspects of some of the earliest video games, but do so in a way that riffs on them in a novel fashion. It might be that the gulf between the two is too wide to go too deeply. Or it might be that the great video game novel has yet to be written.Where video games have undeniably left their mark on the literary world, however, is on works of nonfiction. The independent press Boss Fight Books44Full disclosure: I’ve contributed to two of Boss Fight’s Kickstarter campaigns, primarily as a way to pre-order books that looked interesting. has released a number of books in which writers zero in on a particular video game, a model seemingly based on the 33 1/3 music book series; so far, Boss Fight has featured the likes of Matt Bell, Michael Kimball, and Ken Baumann exploring their own histories with particular games. (I interviewed publisher Gabe Durham in 2013 for an earlier piece dealing with another side of the overlap of and games and literature.) As with the 33 1/3 series, the approaches are disparate here: Baumann uses the early role-playing game EarthBound as a means to analyze his own life, from his upbringing in Texas to his time as a child actor. Bell’s book, on the other hand, focuses on Baldur’s Gate II, and explores his experiences playing it both in adolescence and now, and draws in his own experiences as pseudonymous co-author of a novel set in the Dungeons & Dragons world.As a 38-year-old whose first video game system was an Atari 5200, and who still has brief moments of anxiety related to Hunt the Wumpus, plenty of moments from both Baumann and Bell’s books resonated with me; there are details that brought back decades-old memories of my first experience with video games, and the hold they can exert over a young mind. And I’m not alone: there’s a sizable cohort of writers of a certain age for whom video games were as innate a part of growing up as sports were to generations past. Michael W. Clune’s memoir Gamelife is the story of his problematic coming-of-age, but it’s structured around the experience of several of the games that he played as he grew up. These are a varied group, ranging from the Nazi-killing of the Wolfenstein games to Sid Meier’s Pirates! to Suspended, a text adventure game involving an immobile hero and a series of robots unraveling a conspiracy, which delved into landscapes of paranoia and sensory deprivation.Plenty of video games play out as heroic narratives, and the blend of nostalgia and analysis that predominates in the gaming memoir creates a kind of parallel origin story. In some cases, this is an uplifting one: Baumann’s book on Earthbound juxtaposes the game’s unique, philosophical approach with his own desire for self-improvement. Clune’s book is a bleaker work. This is his second memoir; his first, White Out, was centered around his addiction to heroin. In a recent essay for Vice, Clune argued against easy parallels between the two: “Computer games have enhanced and enriched my life while drugs and alcohol turned me into a walking corpse,” he wrote.Gamelife focuses almost entirely on its author’s childhood in the 1980s in the suburbs of Chicago. There’s a brief, oblique reference to Clune’s subsequent addiction, but there isn’t a direct line made between the two. The experiences he describes here are indeed wrenching to read about—his nascent video game fandom clashing with his mother’s religious beliefs, the growing gulf between his parents, the general shittiness of middle-school boys—but without the perspective of his older self, it can at times be difficult to assess the damage they did.Clune’s mode here is both philosophical and, occasionally, grandiose. When discussing his playing of the Wolfensteinseries, he juxtaposes the experience with the religion in which he grew up. But it’s also one of the few places where his choice of words can seem over the top: “World War II games have this advantage over Christianity: It is not your own suffering that weds you to the cross of redemption. It is the suffering of Nazis.” Often, Clune is able to capture the way that games can prompt obsessive playing—whether as escapism or as a kind of addiction-like behavior all their own. But sometimes, the evocations of gaming as a kind of alternative theology can wear thin.When Clune takes a wider approach, he makes a number of salient points about gaming’s effect on young minds. Here, he looks at his first time playing a text adventure, and how it shaped him for years to come:The generation of humans who were approximately seven years old when PC games first became widely available, we remember the first time we did something methodical.One could argue with the generational aspect here; there are other factors (class among them) that might also contribute to whether someone did or did not begin playing PC games at a certain age. But certainly, it’s a shared memory for a vast array of people. And it’s an experience that has had, and will continue to have, an effect on the way stories are told.And for people like Clune, the experience has had a real effect on storytelling. As a result of playing games, Clune writes early on in Gamelife, “I began to imagine more.” But it remains to be seen whether that sense of imagination will largely act as a muse to other artistic disciplines, or if it will spark a shift in the way narratives in other mediums work. For now, we’re still standing in an open field west of a white house, waiting to see what comes next.