We’ve been watching a lot of movies lately — uh, just like everybody else on the entire planet — and there’s this particular kind of moment that I get really excited about (like, I start poking my boyfriend really hard and I say “It’s happening!!” a bunch of times, which I’m sure he loves) that is only ever guaranteed to happen in low budget movies, though it can happen in any movie. I call it the B-movie storytelling moment. It’s that moment in a B-movie (duh) when there is clearly something totally insane the filmmakers want to film, but they don’t have the budget for it, so they just have a character describe it at length instead.
Of course, sometimes this is simply done on purpose, for the effect. (Which, in my opinion, is a very awesome effect; awesome enough to make me just absolutely bother my boyfriend every time it happens, which, again, I am certain he adores.) But sometimes you can tell that the director clearly would rather have just filmed it. The fun part is guessing which moments are intentional and which are born of budgetary necessity — and realizing that maybe, functionally, there is no difference!
One of the most effective instances of a movie storytelling moment, to give an example pretty much everybody remembers, is when Robert Shaw spends an uncanny, uninterrupted several minutes giving a firsthand account of the (true!) story of the 1945 mass shark attack on the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis right before the climactic final shark-battle of Jaws. It’s such a memorably unsettling moment because the story Shaw’s character tells is a thousand times scarier and more messed up than anything dramatized in the movie. It compels the audience to imagine something way worse than the movie has the ability to show us.
So, yeah, I’ve been on the lookout for storytelling moments in all the movies we’ve been watching during lockdown. My favorite so far is in Night of the Living Dead, when, not long after Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea meet up in the farmhouse, Jones’ character gives a not-at-all-paying-attention O’Dea a long, detailed account of an encounter he had earlier that day with zombies at a gas station. The story he tells is noticeably, almost comically, beyond the scope of the lowtech flick — it involves, as I recall, zombies jumping onto a careening gas tanker truck (that is also being driven by a zombified guy? sorry I can’t find a clip but I think that might be what happens) that bursts into flame, after which Jones steals a pickup truck and mows down dozens of zombies in order to escape. It’s by far the most action that happens in the movie, and it’s all off-screen.
Lockdown is, of course, an uncanny time to become obsessed with the uncanniest moments in film. Although, to be fair, stories-within-stories have sort of always been my thing — like, give me a Bolaño novel that starts with a guy walking into a bar, and then another guy starts telling him a story, and the rest of that novel is just the second guy telling that story and you never even hear from the first guy again, and I’m blissed out, I’m happy. That’s the good stuff, to me. But this film thing feels, right now, sort of different from that. It’s not just a wacky way of taking a narrative delightfully off the rails. It’s a dispatch. It’s usually addressed nearly head on toward the camera, as an unbroken monologue, as though it’s being delivered directly to the viewer: a dispatch from outside the edges of the movie.
I don’t know what it reminds me of, exactly. Is it that I have been receiving little dispatches just like that? People in little boxes on these Zoom calls. Snatches of sound passing on the streets. A photo of corpses being piled up on the bed in a sleep study room in a hospital in Queens. Horrifying stories, from outside my narrative, way worse than anything this B movie life of mine has shown me, so far. Or something else altogether; is it more like, I am longing for that uncanny moment in a (real-life!) conversation when the other person suddenly tells a startling story? Honestly, there’s nothing like it; nothing like how weird things can get, sometimes, surprisingly, when you’re just talking to someone else, someone you don’t know very well.
I guess I miss the way other people can be surprising. Doing your own thing all day, you can start to forget that about them? I’m lucky I have my boyfriend here. I can tell he tries to come up with something new for me everyday. I am very lucky. I guess that’s what I’m thinking of, today.
1. “Don’t Look For Patient Zeros” by Scott W. Stern, The New Republic
A recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily about the supposed corona “Patient Zero” of New Jersey prompted pushback from several public figures, most notably Richard A. McKay, author of Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, who responded by writing an essay debunking the entire “Patient Zero” concept. In this review, Stern fleshes out the history of the idea of “Patient Zero,” explaining how McKay’s book, which came out in 2017, served as rebuttal to Randy Shilts’ classic work of nonfiction about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, which notoriously vilified Canadian flight attendant Gaétan Dugas as the “source” of HIV in the U.S.
2. “Joyelle McSweeney’s Poetry of Catastrophe” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
When reviewing Joyelle McSweeney’s devastating two-part book of poetry, Toxicon and Arachne — part one written during her pregnancy and part two written after the death of the baby — Dan Chiasson encounters a sickly aesthetic fit for the Age of the Virus, in which “nature is ‘poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.’ The words of the living commingle sickeningly with those of the dead… prior language takes hold of a poem by seepage or contamination, in the stealthy way that ‘bugs, viruses, weeds and mold’ do, going about their relentless work.”
3. “Like No One They’d Ever Seen” by Ed Park, The New York Review of Books
Ed Park writes about the “ghostly” place held in the American canon by Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, an autobiographical memoir first published in 1937, which was rereleased yet again by Penguin Classics last year.
4. “The Elephant” by Chan Chi Wa, Lit Hub
A story about a missing elephant. Excerpted from That We May Live, an anthology of Chinese dystopic fiction.
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5. “As Clean as Rage” by Nadja Spiegelman, The New York Review of Books
Nadja Spiegelman surveys the work of the radical French writer Virginie Despentes, whose Vernon Subutex trilogy is in the midst of being released in the U.S. To give you a taste of Despentes’ iconoclasm, Spiegelman writes that, after her first sensational novel Rape Me was published in French, “The French press hurled themselves at Despentes … They tried to cast her as the girl who’d been saved from sleaze by the grace of her talents, but she refused the role, insisting that the best years of her life were the ones before she’d been ‘discovered’ … When a journalist asked her if turning her first trick had felt like violating the ultimate taboo, she responded, ‘Much less so than my first television appearance.’”
6. “The People Who Profited Off the Trail of Tears” by Caitlin Fitz, The Atlantic
Caitlin Fitz reviews Claudio Sant’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, a book about the bankers who profited from the theft of Native homes. “[Sant] follows the money, exhaustively researching company correspondence and government records to show how bankers in Boston and London financed the dirty work of dispossession in collaboration with southern speculators. The result is a haunting story of racialized cruelty and greed, which came to define a pivotal period in U.S. and indigenous history alike.”
7. “The Rise of the Lurker” by Adrian Daub, The New Republic
In a review of Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User — which imagines the lurker as a kind of twenty-first century flaneur — Adrian Daub writes that now, in the Age of the Virus, many of us, the inessential us, have become real-life lurkers.
Stay well and sanitize your groceries,