The Critics

Katie Ellison Click to read more...

ShenandoahHeadshotKatie Ellison is an MFA candidate at the University of Idaho, Moscow. She was the recipient of the Jacqueline Award for Prose from her alma mater, Wellesley College, and her work can also be found at civileats.org, 34thParallel, and is forthcoming in 5×5.

A Way In, 2012

I’m not ready to watch my father’s first movie alone. In it, a boy regularly burned by his sadistic mother grows up and finds her dead in the house they still share, freeing him to indulge his homicidal pyromania with fresh female victims. Instead of looking closer at my father’s story, instead of settling into a dark room with this small piece of him, instead of committing myself to his visions scene by scene, I watch Quentin Tarantino introduce the film at the 2006 Best of the QT Film Festival on YouTube. He stands on a small stage lit by a projector in Austin, Texas, welcoming the audience, and me.

Unlike Tarantino, my father never wanted me to watch Keep Out*. He never sent me a VHS though I asked more than twice. Claiming embarrassment, his shame show whiffed of something more. “Just please don’t watch it until I’m dead,” he said.

My father never swung a plastic cup or slurred his words, which Tarantino does in the YouTube video. My father drank his last beer and directed his last film before I was born. Though I have no proof, I imagine the booze fed the art, and when both were gone, I proudly accepted the position of his next great love (after the booze) and creation (after the movie). I took my place on the stage in our home as a wavy-haired, wide-eyed emblem of all that he believed good in the world: I was steadfast, loyal, true. I tried to believe, as he tried new experiments with different careers and as our family took its dips and turns, that I could be these things for him always.

Tarantino announces the line-up at the all-night horror movie marathon, a streaming roll of cheap gore, his ‘80’s cult favorites selected from the years since the festival’s beginning in 1997. Keep Out* was projected on 16mm at the first QT Fest: Tarantino once cooed to my father that he owned a copy when they met in the lobby of the Arclight Cinema on Sunset Boulevard in 2009. According to a half-smug, half-flattered recounting from my father, patrons gathered around the two directors to watch them profess their mutual fandom before the next showing of Inglorious Basterds, which my father was going to see for the first time while Tarantino came to observe the audience. They stood in front of the waxed ticket booth and the adjacent minishop that sells film stars’ photographic autobiographies and the newest trend in key chains for Angelino drivers. The marquee opens like a menu above the booth, selections lit up like ticker tape, an oversized analog clock without numbers centered at the top warning latecomers that they will be turned away, reserved seats and sixteen-dollar tickets or no. Beyond the gourmet concession stands selling Columbian coffee and organic chocolate along with the usual fare, the cinemas are enormous caves, the round walls planted with tiny bulbs blinking like distant stars. The screens are wide just like the plump blue velvet seats, and ushers introduce the films before they play. Directors are bound to run into each other in such a place, but I always preferred the defunct Fairfax Avenue theatre’s creaky fold-down chairs, sticky floors, and one-dollar specials on weekday afternoons. The last movie I saw before they bolted the doors forever was Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic.

I am a fan of Tarantino. Tarantino is a fan of my father, and this means something to me, but it doesn’t help me know what I am to my father: beloved, a prize, a member of his clan, a devotee, a piece of him.

“Love you,” I say into a receiver.

“Take care,” he replies.

I’m sure—sure—there is some secret at the core of his movie that will show me who my father is, how I can learn to be a recognized artist—possess a fan base (however small), garner success at the bank (second at the box office opening weekend to Friday the 13th), publicly admired by at least one genius in his field. If I look close enough at his movie, I will understand him (I won’t): his ultimate limitations as a filmmaker, as a man, as a father. If I can understand his film, I’ll learn what drove him to drink, to make this movie, to make me. I’ll identify what darkness is only his and not at all mine to inherit (a day will never pass when I won’t have to decide this piece by piece, or decide not to decide). I can set myself free.

To get free from so many questions, to search for answers, I go to the place that has always given the desert Los Angeles wasteland where I grew up color and meaning. The place that told me about all the characters there are to be: the television afterschool, the movies, the computer for research or to write. Like all of us, I go to screens.

Tarantino barks from the video to “shut the fuck up” while the movies are playing.

“This is not an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good festival.… we’re gonna give [the films] resPECT,” he says, leaning forward and practically spitting into the audience.

The demand for respect delivered in an entirely disrespectful manner is all too familiar: hypocrisy is second nature to a man with a drink in his hand. Not that I should know because I never saw my father that way. But sometimes even if the drink is gone, the drunk isn’t. So I know anyway.

My father decides to burn women—their nails painted and hair done, writhing with feminine virility and completely naked—with a torch blower in the basement of a decrepit New Jersey mansion. Or, his film’s protagonist, Donnie does.

I open a scanned photograph he has sent me of himself as a twenty-something in black-and-white. “AN ANGRY YOUNG MAN,” my father titles it in all caps, and I compare a still shot of Donnie, played by a young Italian-American actor whom I know from The Sopranos—a show we watched together in the living room with bowls of vanilla Haagen Daas and Hershey’s syrup. Side by side, the images double on my laptop screen: curly brown hair, narrow eyes, a square face, a big nose, and thin lips shut tight. I assure myself that my father is more handsome than Donnie.

My father and I share a broad face and wide nose.

I have been a mirror.

My reflection in the dressing room at a Versace outlet store: I carefully slide myself into a black silk satin pantsuit my father has picked out for me to try on. I am seventeen, just old enough to carry the outfit if I stand still, statuesque, and wear stilettos. When I step out to the main room with its shiny white linoleum floors, my father is across from me speechless at the sheen of the suit, and I remember another photograph of him and my mother in the back of a black limousine on their way to the premiere of his movie. In this suit, I could be in the backseat with them, all glitter and glam. “You have to have it,” he says, and though I’m not sure because I have no reason to own anything made of Italian silk satin at seventeen, I say okay. I am a dream in this suit; I am my father’s dream in this suit; my father loves me in this suit.

“Why are you digging into this crap,” he says into the phone from Los Angeles when I ask about his past. “What makes us who we are?” he says.

“No less is this the best of QT…” Tarantino says into the mic smirking and with proper Hollywood pomp, “…these are the stars of the marathon class.”

Enthusiastic but thin applause claps against the theatre walls. I keep watching, the answer to my father’s questions rising like my face from his.

*

Home Screening, 2011

The first time I watch Keep Out*, a couple of friends join me at my boyfriend’s place, one of them a trashy-slasher aficionado. We rent it on DVD from the independently-owned rental treasure trove on Main Street in the small Northwest college town where I’m living—I can’t believe they have a copy.

“They had it?” my aficionado-friend says on his way in, eight inches taller than me, eyebrows raised, and carrying a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey. My father’s movie was shelved next to the good stuff the big screens in town won’t play. Pride stirs a rock in my diaphragm, then small panic: it’s as if I’ve stolen something, but I paid $2.50 to have the DVD for a week. The smell of beer is on my friend’s breath, his mouth agape in front of me, and I wonder if $2.50 is enough to buy my way into my father’s imagination. Does this buy my father’s permission?

We settle into the couch, beer and whiskey at our feet, and play the movie on a flat screen. These other eyes combined with my boyfriend’s frequent trips to the bathroom are distracting: I can’t hear or see my father. I realize I’ve invited them because I couldn’t face this alone. I needed these men in the room to drown him out, still fearful (though entirely unaware of it) that his demons will claim me once and for all. The full implications are lost—why angle the camera that way, why from that corner, why costume the first victim in brown (my father has always hated brown clothing). With each frame, I yearn more and more for privacy. I want to consider every choice made on set and in the cutting room just a few years before my mother and father chose to have me, but instead of time to do it, there’s company.

I sip slowly on a single can of PBR and fear holds me still in my seat: could this slasher-savvy friend of mine see more into my father’s psyche than I can? Can he, fueled by beer and whiskey, see what Tarantino sees? I wonder if drinking is the secret.

Months later, I work up the courage to get drunk and cue up the movie my father said he made “so that [he] could make the movies [he] really wanted to make.” But he never made those movies. He made this one.

The images that by sober daylight are cheaply produced and somewhat disturbing, become haunting while I am drunk and alone in my apartment at night. I lean sloppily at my desk after only three beers and become easily spooked at the cheap scares. How much of Donnie is my father’s recreation of himself?

He is dreaming: at the beach it is dusk and his hair, thick and dark like my father’s, blows in sea air. Explosions light up the dark surrounding Donnie as he watches fire blaze paths through the sand. One path cools to reveal a deep hole left behind: a hole my parents dug together at the Jersey shore. A synthetic xylophone plops and hums and reverbs like a blown speaker. Donnie stands at the edge and looks down, a close up of his eyes backlit by the horizon twilight, his brow creased in tension just like my father’s. A shot of the hole: the bottom is too dark to see. Atonal sounds settle with a wide shot of Donnie from below. A pull in tighter on his face. He realizes there is something in the hole. A synthetic alarm sounds. Three burnt bodies jump and grab Donnie by the ankles. The burned women pull him down. He claws at the sand.

I stop the movie.

Instead, I look at stills—Donnie’s blank face on the beach just like my father’s in Santa Monica, the naked redhead with pale skin like mine chained up and screaming, the fire of the torch in the steel basement. What have I been a victim of? Or am I a martyr? What do I believe?

*

The Mall, 1991

On Thursdays after school, my father picks me up and we go to a movie. The day is better because I won’t walk home like all the other kids, rolling a house key between my fingers, or land on our white couch to stay for many hours in front of the television. While that time alone with the small screen is sacred, the thrill of walking out the chainlink fence from the schoolyard and into my father’s fourth-hand forest green BMW, tan leather seats hot on my thighs and the air conditioning on high, makes me forget the daily monotony. He has released me from homework, dirty dishes, drudgery—and we roll west to my favorite mall.

The Westside Pavillion has pink and turquoise trim with skylights and steep escalators; it is where Tom Petty shot the music video for his song “Free Fallin.’” I’m embarrassed when I hear it—“she’s a good girl… loves horses… crazy ‘bout Elvis….” I’m a character, summarizable by a pop song. Home from a riding lesson in the valley one day, I find pictures of my father as a boy in a kitchen drawer. “He looks like Elvis!” I burst out to no one in particular.

We buy candy and sit next to each other in the cool dark. The erratic action and white noise of normal life fades and we enter a world of contrasted color and shadow, precisely timed soundtracks, and iconic faces acting life out as it is when we make a story of it. I sink myself in stories; my father has always read to me before bed. This to me is what I imagine booze was to him, a safe and warm escape where I can dream myself as big as the faces on-screen. He gives this to me. I can be anything in a dark theatre.

*

The Nasties, 2010

Glen Criddle has an exploitation film review called The Nasties on YouTube, and he covered Keep Out*.

“Donnie picks his victims to have a mirror for both his hatred of women and himself… [yet] the killer’s motives are basic and unexplored.”

As a kid, I saw stills of the first murder scene in the movie hung on the wall of my father’s office. That scene is what I wait to see and it is what I fear witnessing the most: it is my father’s magnum opus as a filmmaker.

My father’s first victim in the film was a Playboy model and friend of my mother’s. It was a closed set. Completely naked, her wrists chained above her, she is doused with gasoline from a red five-gallon canister by Donnie’s hand. In a blue room of steel-plated walls, the gas pours into her mouth as she screams. Flame shoots at her with a pull of Donnie’s finger. The color and field of view is the most beautiful: I can’t look away.

Criddle is right. Donnie’s motives are unclear, but my father’s are not: this scene is worth watching again and again.

Criddle says, “There is some complexity to this broken man…despite the disjointed way it’s presented to us.”

I learn that there are several cuts to the film, one for each release in the United States, in the UK, in Europe. I learn that many exploitation films from the 1970s and ‘80s had multiple cuts and I wonder about the stories those directors meant to tell versus the ones movie studios would allow. I learn that many writers and directors of exploitation films are sickened by their work, despite positive reviews or box office success.

My father, to me: “I did what I could with what I had.”

Enter envy here: my father defends himself, even I defend him, but I agree with the critic before a single word of my own colors a page. My critic leaps from a pit in the brain. I walk up, like Donnie on the beach, looking for a reason to bury my story, myself in the sand.

Sometimes it takes me, but I get a grip on something solid and pull myself back to the white screen and blinking cursor.

What is it jumping out at my father? Is it so different from what is clutching at my ankles? Is my father only better at pretending it isn’t there, at walking with the weight? OR: Is it all mere costumes and lighting—do we create our own nightmares?

Criddle: “It should have at least something going on below the surface to convey some reason for [its] bleakness.”

The bleakness I know: the white of our couch afterschool, of city noise in the wee hours, of a blank page. Wide streets of Vine and Highland and Sunset running alongside movie studios and homeless shelters and mini malls. The Santa Monica Pier stretched across the pale beach into the Pacific, Ferris wheel spinning and sparkling to me. The hills rolling in and out of the valley, grown over in desert greenery crackling under the sun. I’ve never seen those leaves go dark except by wild fire, sometimes a match burned black deep within the branches and ash, smoke billowing over the city.

*

Family Fire, 1995

In our bedroom, my little sister, seven years old, screams and cries in her bed and my father stands over her yelling. I tell him, “Stop it, stop,” but he won’t hear me from just four feet away, so I say it again, loud, STOP IT, and before the two syllables are out, he spins around, his hand held above me, muscles flexed and taut. I scoot back quick and fold my eleven-year-old body into the corner of my twin bed where the walls meet. I wait, every joint locked, the room quiet but for the sound of blood pulsing through my temples. His anger is suspended above me, all its weight wanting to fall, and I fear more than anything that he’ll hit me anyway, after this time to think about it; after we’ve been face-to-face, me cowering in the corner, eyes begging him still to stop; after the adrenaline has settled some, leaving the nerves vulnerable. It will hurt more if he hits me now; more will be broken this way.

Instead: he laughs.  Lowering his hand, he smiles at me, as if it were all a joke. From below, his white teeth gleam with saliva and his broken eye contact is a confession of what he knows: his power over me is absolute. On his side, I am safe; on my own, I am vulnerable to everything, especially him. I feel sure he is laughing at my smallness, at my being eleven and unable to stop him. I feel as though he laughs because to hit me would be too easy, and so, unfulfilling. I feel as though he sees all the weakness I cannot change, and is amused.

My bones rattle, teeth clattering in my skull.

“You asshole,” I say, just like I’ve heard my mother say so many times. His face drops and all is perfectly quiet. “You fucking asshole.” I say it again and again and it is as though the oldest thing I know is speaking for me.

His face darkens and he becomes so still; I’ve never spoken to him like this and now it’s me that won’t stop. My relentlessness awakens him, his muscles making the smallest movement so that I’m sure he’s beginning to grow in front of me. I run out of the room, down the stairs, out the back door. When I return from the sandbox and swings hours later, it’s dinnertime and we take our places around the rectangular glass table. I sit at my end, across from him.

“You have to apologize,” my mother says.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Like you mean it, Katie,” she says.

My father is stone-faced and doesn’t look at me. I wait for him to raise his eyes, to make his own admission, apology. I do what my mother says.

“And you’ll never disrespect him again,” she demands. I feel the heat from the spotlight lamp hanging over the table, its reflection on the glass an electric stovetop for my boiling gut.

In a flashback, Donnie’s mother holds his arms over a gas flame to punish him.

For a year or two afterward, I say as little to my father as possible. One morning, we go for a drive downtown away from the ocean and he says, “I couldn’t believe how scared you looked when I raised my hand. I laughed because I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I’m sorry.”

Between the times my father and I step out the front door and back inside again, we begin to talk about nothing in particular.

*

Riding Waves, 2002

“I don’t love you anymore,” my scrawny high school boyfriend says at twilight a few months before I leave Los Angeles for college. I roll home under a purple sky in the silver pick up truck my father bought me fighting back tears that won’t stop coming. My father sees me come in the back door and already knows. The next day, he and I go for a drive, and he puts on an Emmy Lou Harris record in his black truck so I can just let the tears fall. He owned a black pick up truck twenty years ago; Donnie drove young women to the New Jersey mansion in it.

That night, I see a late show of Whale Rider, the first movie I watch in a theatre alone. I will go to the movies alone whenever I need to be someone else. In a familiar dark room, the story of a young girl stepping into a man’s role as leader of her tribe is backdrop for the ocean at daybreak and the underwater shots of the girl gripping the back of a baleen whale. I ride home from the movie in the silver pick up, street lights glinting off my windshield, and decide to drive to the beach early the next morning. When I sleep, I sink into water, dreaming of an ocean cliff, and rise before dawn to meet surfers bobbing like seals in the breakers. It is cold, the cab of the truck like a womb. The hood reflects the smoky blue of the sky and sea, fog clouding any light from the sun. On the slate horizon, I see the orange balloon my father tied to the driver’s side mirror before he led me, hand over my eyes, to my truck and I got in for the first time. “My baby ocean” he always says when we drive along the coast, and looks with a slight longing at the surfers below. I will be gone soon into my own story, but the waves hush memory and imagination, rolling one over another, over another. The hair on my arms bristles under a gray sweatshirt; the cold gets in. I stay, a chill creeping into my bones, and imagine my laughter mixing with the surfers’ playful calls, the icy water crashing with our voices.

**

*The name of the film has been changed and telling details avoided for the sake of a common welfare.

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