I love when it rains in LA. The air grows humid, which feels right. The smog and the dust are cleaned out. The grass grows, and the hillsides are covered in green. Even my dog acts less of a pain in the ass. The city feels sleepy, and I’m reminded of how constant a part of life rain is if you’re from a certain climate. (My boyfriend and I wonder, like we’re lost on the island of lotus-eaters, “Did it just rain all the time when we lived on the east coast?”) There’s joy in stepping out into a changed landscape for puppy to go potty. I joke that I have reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, since I’m overjoyed when I smell rain and wet fallen leaves—but I’m told that LA schoolchildren get just as excited about the rain.
I know that rain here in southern California causes mudslides, and car accidents, and brushfires later on when the inevitable dry season (more than a season) returns and the hillsides are now filled with dead grass, shrubs, and saplings. Rain is dangerous here. People don’t know how to deal with it. It’s nasty and inconvenient when you are used to living in an almost year-round summer, when every restaurant has a patio and schools have outdoor cafeteria seating and people are supposed to take tea or rosé or whatever on the veranda—though I rarely see this ever happening in my neighborhood. Not to mention when you are used to driving your car like we’re all still in a Wild West cattle train, besieged by Native American attackers.
I was thinking last night about the birds I used to listen to in bed in the morning, when I was little, in hilly western Pennsylvania. I could count maybe five different birdsongs—I’m sure there were more—but my particular favorite was the mourning dove: easy to identify, and easy to remember its name. It was only last night that I realized that when I go to bed in LA (despite our lovely neighborhood, where we have cyprus trees and funny little orangey squirrels) I hear nothing. Nothing, except the occasional roar of a police helicopter circling frighteningly close, or a siren passing. No crickets, no cicadas, no grasshoppers, no owls, no scratching nocturnal critters. I once saw a raccoon in our tree out front, so they must live here…but that tree is gone now, and so too is the massive one in the back yard, thanks to our chainsaw-happy neighbor and landlord. (The landlord is old and doesn’t want to deal with roof damage; the neighbor is more interested in drilling flowerpots into walls for some reason than in having natural trees.)
Rain can be melancholy, but it can also be happy; and sun can be happy, but it can also be melancholy. I hate how we east-coasters, and midwest-ers, and even northwesters, all make a cult of the deciduous forest after we’ve lived in LA a few years. Can’t we be happy with one of the world’s most delightful climates—the only other “Mediterranean climate,” everyone is always screaming! There’s plenty of wildlife in the desert! they say—that felt like such a great vacation for the first year or two? Where you can smoke legal weed and drive around in the sunshine and never have outdoor concerts or events cancelled? Can’t we exist in LA peacefully without desperately trying to explain, to everyone who will listen, just how nice red brick architecture and organic city planning and pine forests are?
Maybe not. I read that all around the world, thanks to climate change, the insects are dying and so the fields are growing quiet. When I looked with Google Earth at where I lived when I was little, at the acre of woods in our backyard where I chased down moles (I drew a star-nosed one glimpsed running across the garden), tortoises (we rehabilitated them), mice, deer (we gave them salt lick), blue jays, cardinals, finches, and hummingbirds (we fed them), woodpeckers, garter snakes (I caught them), bumblebees (we fed them to the snakes), squirrels, and chipmunks (my favorite)…I saw an unending, mushrooming development of office complexes and access roads. So for now…I guess we’ll just have to be happy here in LA, my pacified little doggy and me, watching another weirdo neighbor across the street, wearing his denim cutoff short shorts despite the weather, checking on his muscle cars in the rain.
It’s about to be 2019, and I’ve been writing seriously for almost ten months. By seriously, I don’t mean that I’ve been published or commissioned, or that I’ve sat daily for twelve hours at a typewriter sweating blood. I haven’t even taken proper classes yet. By seriously, I don’t mean that I’ve discovered myself a Writer, destined to write the Next Great American Novel, wearing loose-fitting black sweaters and pondering the meaning and importance of fiction. Well—maybe I have been doing a little of that last part.
What I mean is that for most of 2018, for the first time, I’ve sat down for a few hours, sometimes many times a week and sometimes few, sometimes stopping for weeks, sometimes overflowing with joy and sometimes feeling broken and stuck…and I’ve written words on a page. The most unexpected side effect for me of starting Morning Pages over a year ago was not to encourage, but to curb my journaling. After several months of limiting my graphomania to three pages a day (and after some David Bowie and lots of crying), it’s no coincidence I felt ready to use the writing to explore the kernel of an urge to attempt fiction. (An urge that has been skulking around probably since the first story I ever wrote, in backwards letters and misspelled words, about a family of Pac-Men fighting at the breakfast table.)
But writing is hard, you guys. It’s f*cking hard. (If not as hard as the truly hard things in life, like being a Syrian refugee, for one.) I don’t mean the physical act of it. It’s obvious that I happen to be an addict who will not stop until every word in my brain is out in the world even if it’s all just a noxious cloud of nonsense. It's obvious because I’m here writing to you, when there’s no monetary or social or spiritual value in it. It’s not the act that’s hard for me. Turns out the hard part is what John Gardner and Francine Prose warned me about so many times: the utter discouragement, the many dark nights of the soul that come after the first blush of romance. It’s coming face to face with the unending and impossibly tall concrete wall of my own limitations. It’s struggling mightily with my own consciousness.
Okay, I’ve already dealt with this all as an actor. But writing is insular. I can’t avoid abusing myself every damn day—even if it's mostly not while I'm writing--with the mean little voice that questions my own transformation, the voice which exists only in fear of the future and shame of the past. What are you doing? it screams. You suck at this. You are just (there it is again) shamefully bourgeois and untalented. You’re just doing this because you failed at being an actor. Whatever happened to your love of film? Whatever happened to being a movie director? (As if that were invalidated forever.) Whatever happened to structuring your entire life the last five to nine years around the sacred dream of being a successful, working actor? What happened to filling your every waking thought up with that? What happened? Isn’t this just another fluke? And who do you think you are? A dilettante? What is the point of this? What are you going to DO with your LIFE? How are you going to succeed?
That’s a hefty burden to bear, especially when no one really cares, in the final reckoning, what I do with my time, much less what I label myself. In these last few years, I’ve undergone more harrowing identity shifts than this. I’ve entered and left the uber-structured groves of academia. I’ve dealt with the tribulations of a long-term relationship. I’ve extricated myself (partly, enough to have a look around) from the mind-moulding wreckage of a childhood. I’ve declared myself something (an actor) then made that a reality around me. I’ve moved as far as possible across the country. I’ve taken lots of foreign trips. I’ve spent many long hours alone. I’ve felt my mind and body age into adulthood (against my will). I’ve even undergone a big old Thomas Merton-style conversion, in the face of tragedy and change. Yet it still freaks me out on a mortal level, in spite of all the very real terror and trauma going on in the world…that I’ve been writing. And that I probably will keep doing it for a while. And that I have much to learn. And that I don’t know where 2019 is going to take me. And that the only thing I can do is surrender to it.
They never said it wasn’t hard. Part of the great muchness of life is that (if we are lucky to have the time) we all struggle with our own stupid brains, and that doing so can feel as difficult and as real as Siddhartha battling a million demons at the base of the Bodhi tree. We’re all trapped in our imagined boundaries of selfhood, bearing some kind of divine spark with some kind of flawed monkey consciousness on top. We have to keep learning the same universal lessons over and over and over—which is the whole reason fiction exists.
What's my point here? If only we could worry less. We can go on. We can have to faith to try….to open our hearts, to meditate, to learn healthier physical and emotional habits, to allow in a grace that gives us a strength and judgment beyond what we could ever imagine. We can let go a little bit right now, and now, and now, and wake up five years, two years, one year, six months later and find ourselves somehow a completely different person, a tiny little baby step closer to what feels good and right. Even if your mental chatter is not as off-puttingly loud or circular as mine, and even if you have your own particular cocktail of issues and ineffective programs for happiness, you know what it is I’m talking about. Even if there is only one person reading this, I know it’s worthwhile if you can glean the tiniest little nugget of truth or hope from what I’m attempting so poorly to say. Which is, as usual, simply a reminder to myself: The only way to grow is to go through some scary, hard stuff, to let go of our ego and what we think is right, to let go of knowing or trying to control or anticipate what is going to happen to us. We’re all like my bulldog puppy—we just don’t know how to use stairs, until one day we do.
So, 2019. Let go of worrying so much about what is going to happen and what you need to do to prepare for it. Don’t worry so much (like I do) about shifts in your job, your vocations, your monetary status, your hobbies, your lifestyle, and your love relationships. Let go of fear of the things you don’t know or can’t figure out, of the terrifying abyss within us, the nothingness/somethingness that pervades every wonderful thing in this universe. Forget for a moment the guessing game of what apocalypse is going to hit the world next. Say a prayer for the many who are suffering. Take a deep breath, give thanks, hug a loved one. Don’t worry about doing it “right.” Pay real, loving attention to the celebration around you tonight, even if your celebration is just treating yourself to a solo toast while there’s some breath left in you...because even that is a blessing. And have a happy New Year, my friends.
I finished the first draft of my novel!
My first ever completed draft of any substantial piece of fiction.
Here's to more...
“To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough […] I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”
- Walt Whitman
Friends roll their eyes, acquaintances laugh, family members write me treatises on pederasty, and yet…my love for this movie cannot be swayed. Call Me By Your Name: I watched it for the first time alone at the Glendale “Super-Grove," with my now-failing Movie Pass, as a treat for dragging myself to an audition. Little did I know it would become my favorite movie of the year—perhaps one of my favorites of all time—and I would watch it a second time in theaters, a third time on a plane, crying beside a surprised German man, and a fourth time for this little exercise. What is it about this movie that leaves others cold but has me feeling the kind of infatuation that I used to feel when the power of fiction was still new? What about this movie touched a nerve so deep that it has inspired my own work?
This great video essay by Nerdwriter makes some assertions as to why the filmmaking is so effective. It points out the debts this film owes to French New Wave cinema and the works of Merchant Ivory (James Ivory wrote the screenplay, adapted from the novel). These points are illuminating to me as a lifelong lover of film, an actor, and now a student of filmmaking. There are the obvious choices: to shoot on film, with its coveted grainy, nostalgic feel; to use a single 35mm lens, which compares most to the naked human eye; to use subtle, non-flashy camera moves, mostly medium and wide shots, and wide depth of field; to rely on natural light. There’s real tangibility to the film—as the camera glances off an elbow, caresses a face, shows us fruit, wet hair, skin, clothes, flowers on a river bank, we can feel the heat rising from grass, smell the fruit, almost move around in the visible setting. Adding to this effect is sound, notably a total lack of a Hollywood-style score that tells us how to feel. Instead we get mostly diegetic sound, the sounds of nature and music on the radio, sounds of a timeless summer. Our soundtrack is made up of piano pieces Elio is usually seen practicing, plus three evocative songs by Sufjan Stevens. Such choices immerse us in the “fictional dream” without calling attention to themselves.
Some argue CMBYN is merely a collection of pretty images and interiors, like a travelogue, and that the wide shots are detached, like looking at an aquarium. But the slow-paced simplicity put us into Elio’s subjective reality—we hang on every word and every look, trying to figure out the inner life of these characters by external gesture, just like Elio does with Oliver. (The novel is one long interior monologue about this exact exercise.) A more liberal use of close-ups, the traditional filmic marker of inner thoughts, would have been less effective at building this tension. As Nerdwriter argues, viewing distance makes us more aware of the actors’ movements, the charged space between their bodies. There is also the fact that long interrupted takes, space to move, and two-shots wherein the other actor is actually present can lead actors to more truthful performances (which puts my in mind of Vicky Kriep's nice interview about Phantom Thread.) CMBYN is not a terrarium because the actors’ performances contain intimate, raw, moment-to-moment honesty—particularly Timothée Chalamet’s. His performance astonished me the first time, and I enjoy it every viewing—he is transparent, he hides nothing from the viewer even when he must try to hide everything from Oliver. Many of his reactions and attempts to seduce Oliver elicited chuckles of recognition in the theater—a great credit to the subtle, light-touch reality of the film.
Others argue that the camera’s infatuation with a 17-year-old boy is exploitative. Would we feel the same way, they ask, if Elio were female? There is certainly precedent in the real world for ill-meaning adults to use intellectual precocity like Elio’s as an excuse to sexualize a person who is not yet physically mature. Certainly there would be a different aesthetic were Armie Hammer 24 (as his character is, and as he was when he first agreed do the film). But in a film that is relatively devoid of more cliché sources of conflict (no Lifetime Movie tragedy here), director Luca Guadagnino gives us later in the film Oliver’s concern for Elio, his restraint, his knowledge that he is making a strong impression, in now lingering on Hammer’s performance (which I appreciate more each viewing). The power dynamic is changeable as in all relationships. Will Elio leave once he’s finally attained his desire? Is it really Oliver he’s after, or the experience? Has it all been too much for him?
In the end, there is more to art than what we’d prefer politically, especially when it reflects reality in all its messy forms, which is it what this film is all about. Desire does not only occur in the default combination it does in Hollywood films—usually between a woman in her early 20’s and a man at least a decade her senior, if not more—to which, by the way, no American ever seems to bat an eyelash.
I often make fun of myself for loving this movie partly because both of the lovers are male—is it mere titillation? But there is a larger reason that I tend to respond to LGBT stories. Even today, the emergence of queer sexuality is more overtly tied to personal identity, to the question of how to be one’s self in the world, how to discover one’s identity without any ready definitions to draw upon. (This, in fact, seems to be the basic conflict of the film—the tempering of Elio’s desire with confusion and shame over what is normal and what is not, and the unlikelihood and fear of his desire ever being named, let alone returned.)
All of this is brought through beautifully by Ivory’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Having read the novel, I see how spare and well-constructed Ivory’s adaptation actually is, how much it conveys with the economy and compression of time only film can have (as author André Aciman pointed out himself). Who can’t relate to Elio’s attempts to overcome his feelings of thwarted passion with teenage sarcasm, and even the ironic awareness of his own absurdity? Is Elio “annoying,” because he seems so self-possessed, and rattles off in several languages? It is all the more poignant to find such a precocious teen bowled over by the first experience of attraction and kinship deeper than his intellectual mind can comprehend. Language is also part of the sensuality of the film, and the questions of identity with which Elio struggles (Chalamet himself has talked about how one feels like “a different person” speaking in a different language.)
What can I say about this film? Am I at heart just a swoony teenage girl? Is it some kind of calling of the blood of my minor but much-vaunted Sicilian ancestry (Guadagnino is Sicilian, though he shot in Northern Italy)? Is it the predictable result of my tediously bourgeois francophilia? Is it that creativity is same as sexuality, so this film ties in with my own personal cycle of death and rebirth? Is it that I’m obsessive, just a few shades to the right of neurotypical? (Well…for sure…but that’s neither here nor there.) Will my love for this film fade? Will it depart my canon of favorites leaving only an embarrassing stain of the folly of youth? (I’m sure Elio wondered the same thing about his feelings for Oliver.) Am I finally old enough, at about-to-turn-27, to finally “get” coming-of-age stories?
Ultimately the truth is this: I set out this assignment for myself as an attempt to justify my re-watching, to make something useful out of it, to avoid my fear of diminishing returns. But I closed my laptop within ten minutes, unwilling to look away from the slow, beautiful unfolding of the story. Like with fine wine, or true love—the returns to this film are not diminishing, only different. Art is personal, and something within me responds to this kind of story—something that loves the painful memory of teenage awakening…the pining, the fear, the yearning, the way desire can feel like insanity, the way new experience, while terrifying and awful and existentially annihilating, can also be the most delicious joy of one’s life…the way reality and the desperate attempt to transcend reality coexist within each fraught, luscious, lived-in frame, pain and anguish and transcendent beauty all together…
CMBYN about desire, about how we make things into more within our minds and hearts—and that is the kind of relationship I have with this movie. Like any resonant work of art, it opens up the Jungian worlds within. Insecure lovers ask, why do you love me? You can list positive traits, you can list bad ones (women love men for their defects, according to Oscar Wilde), you can talk endlessly about the awful patterns your parents instilled in you which you are now repeating, but ultimately you come short of the truth. We love because we love. And I love this movie. We’ll see how long it lasts. But no matter how long, like Elio with his Oliver, loving it changed me.
TRUE LIFE is finally available! Watch above!
Written, Directed, Produced, and Edited by Harriet Weaver. Starring Chris O'Brien and Harriet Weaver. Producer and DP: Sarah Bennett. Producer and PA: Alana Samuels. Story Editor: Chris O'Brien. A Lone Fox Production.
This month, I’ve been editing the sketch I wrote and directed, TRUE LIFE: I’M IN LOVE WITH AN INTERDIMENSIONAL MONSTER THAT STOLE MY HUSBAND’S BODY...which is coming soon! I’ve also been at work on my novel, and a screenplay under the guidance of the folks at Save the Cat! (Follow me on Instagram if you want more fun photos and updates on what I’ve been up to.)
Today I’m going to try something different with this section of the website, which is to make it into a little blog. I’m not sure what it will be going forward, but I hope it will include some juicy bits about film, art, and the human condition.
Tomorrow marks for me the end of a nine-month process that was reading and practicing the three Artist’s Way books by Julia Cameron. Last year when I returned from my month in Edinburgh with the post-show blues, I remembered how The Artist’s Way had helped me a bit, back when I was a super-confused, super-anxious, pre-therapy, just-barely-young adult in New York. This time, though, rather than diligently changing every instance of the word “artist” or “writer” in my head into “actor,” and rewording every piece of advice to fit my grand pursuit of “success” (whatever that is!) in the business of Acting…I kept my mind a bit more open.
What I found in my heart seems in retrospect to be very obvious, yet I went for years without knowing it, so convinced was I by my upbringing that it was necessary to be hyper-focused on one specialized pursuit—that I could “do whatever I wanted,” but had to make lots of money at it to be valid as a person. I found my love of film (which has been unshakeable since day one)…and a desire to create the worlds I love rather than waiting around for the call to briefly inhabit them as an actor. I also rediscovered that the endless flow of words coming out of my brain could be used not just for addictively journaling my stress away or pounding out academic papers, but to make stories, screenplays, novels—the way I used to write when I was a child, starting before I could even spell.
I’m not saying to heck with acting forever; in fact my whole point is that we should follow our whims and not judge ourselves if one day we blog post about some totally new obsession. What terrified me most was the revelation that my precious identity, like all others, is built on pillars of sand. The second it occurred to me that I could write, direct, make my own films, and all that not just as a side project to advance my acting career…I watched acting dreams that I thought I would “die” if I didn’t achieve melt away in the span of a few days.
Our identities are not set in stone as we wish they were. Any good story, myth, or religion shows us that we have to constantly die to our selves to be resurrected, to grow. This intensely American idea of picking one job and putting your nose to the grindstone is missing a massive part of the picture. Even as I write this, old abusive voices spring up in my skull telling me I’m only saying all this because I’ve somehow “failed” at acting. So go the countless articles and advice with which I filled my brain for the first few years out of college, before I loosened my grasp a little bit on the idea that I had to be good at things to be loved.
The only thing we can keep reminding ourselves in our Dark Nights of the Soul is the same thing all those religions and stories tell, which is: I am not I, you are not you; we are all part of the same Source, however you conceptualize it. It’s in our nature, as in all of Nature, to be creative. All the rest (accolades, productivity, choice of medium, career rewards) is just…nonsense. It's little errors of the human thinking process, that nice little set of stories and traumas and mental chatter that we call the ego. Fortunately life will repeatedly teach us this truth, whether we will it or not.
PH lecturing and directing us actors.
Put together a new one-minute comedy reel. Enjoy below or on my Reels page!
I wrote 50,000 words of a novel! That I am now editing...Also I learned a massive amount working on the great roles of Chekhov at Antaeus and learning ballet from scratch! And continued as usual with on-camera class and singing. More news coming up in May...