Archive for February 14, 2014

Nostalgia for a Psychic Teen: “Fear” by Andy Cooper

I just thought of this story and decided to rescue it from a file so old that Word doesn’t recognize it. I wrote it in high school. Having just reread it, I am possessed by the idea that the thinking behind it predicted the rest of my life (to date). So I thought I’d share.

By the way, unless you actually knew me then, don’t call me Andy.



“I don’t see why you keep reading that garbage.” Muriel sighed as she crawled into bed.

Robert tilted his copy of An Axe for You, My Love to his lap. He smiled at his wife, meeting her disapproving gaze with a teasing shake of his head. “I’ll answer that question—” his voice barely hinted at condescension—”but I’ll have to tell you a story.”

“Please, Robert—you’ll give me nightmares!”

“To tell you the truth, this one might. I was spending that night with a few friends…”

Muriel clamped her hands over her ears. Robert pulled them away, and when she replaced them, he grabbed her wrists, kissed her, and crossed her arms in her lap. She slapped his paw, and he started to whine like a puppy. “Do you want to know or not?” he asked.

“Do I have a choice?”

“No. Well, yes, but don’t worry, it won’t give you nightmares.”

“… I was eight or nine or something; we were at that age just before terrorizing a neighborhood would constitute a night’s healthy entertainment. It was my friend Tyler’s birthday, and his parents had given him permission to have two friends over when they went out to dinner. Our only expectation for their protective return was, `Don’t wait up.’ Tyler lived in a huge house, and we had free reign amidst the castle walls, shooting robbers and rescuing princesses (or was that back when girls were still yucky?) and such. We were valiant heroes, independent rulers of a limitless world, until the sun went down.”

“Oooh,” Muriel shivered.

“Sssh. Anyways, when the sun went down, our We’re Old Enough for Anything attitudes started to ebb. The house was imposing. I can picture us, short and awkward, standing next to a dwarfing wall papered with twisting flower patterns that looked like snakes when the light was right. At that age boys are already inundated with machismo: none of us dared speak our desire for every bulb in the house to burn the crawling shadows away. Our own desires played against us. Knowing our fear and terrified that it would show, each of us had to prove his stuff. `Turn all the lights off,’ the other guest, Vincent, suggested. Who could argue? I caught the idea and grabbed a flashlight. `We’ll tell ghost stories,’ I announced. Tyler acquiesced, raising a complaint in the form of an ominous warning, `We’d better be careful. This house really is haunted.’ We smelled true fear hidden inside his meek contribution to the mood. I noticed him glancing at a picture of his parents that hung on the wall. I didn’t stop to guess.

“We formed a tight circle and began. They were the typical stories, those that all of us were glad we had heard before: they had lost their teeth. But as each of us took turns binding more spells, the room seemed to get darker, and we drew closer together to ward off a mysterious cold that swept into the room. I thought I heard someone scratching at the nearby screen door, but one of my many fears kept me from saying anything. Vincent later told me he had thought he heard footsteps on the basement stairs, but he had been too scared to speak. Finally, I finished a story with the traditional screaming of `GOTCHA!!!’ that the other boys were prepared to let slide off. They were jolted by the volume of my maniacal yelling, but neither of them let a sound escape their throats. Seconds later something roared outside—our stifled screams exploded in a frenzy.

“After the initial fright had dissipated, our ears made out a dog barking. `Oh man, I left Sparks outside,’ Tyler whispered. All of us were wide-eyed, and our heads turned slowly to the glass door that faced the back yard. The night was opaque black; we couldn’t see the dog; we just heard his escalating yelps echoing everywhere. `I was supposed to bring him in,’ Tyler said.

“`Well then you’d better,’ Vincent grinned sardonically. Again our eyes met the murky beyond, and I shuddered involuntarily. Somewhere deep inside, buried by some training, we knew what lurked out there. Fear was not an option. We were too old to be afraid of the dark, and we all knew about bogeymen and monsters… that didn’t exist, that don’t exist, we assured ourselves. But Vincent had thrown down the gauntlet, and boys that age are relentless. He and I stared at Tyler mercilessly, demanding that he take action. `I guess I’d better,’ he mustered, and he stood from the circle.

“I would have jumped up after him, but my legs were frozen. Vincent had stood immediately, and I knew that if I sat paralyzed, the tables would turn on me. I saw hope glowing in Tyler’s eyes. I leapt up numbly. Vincent and I circled to Tyler’s back and poked him toward the doorway. `Go ahead,’ I jeered. Tyler slid forward slowly like a man walking a plank. I decided then that if he chickened out, I wouldn’t give him such a hard time. But Tyler was silent as Vincent opened the door. I was petrified to go near the night. Tyler crossed the threshold, turned, and waved goodbye. My spine was rigid. Both of us waved back.

“Soon Tyler was enveloped by darkness. Vincent and I stood by the doorway. The dog had stopped barking, and that was much, much worse than the noise could have ever been. `He’ll be back,’ I told somebody, maybe myself. `Yeah,’ nodded Vincent. `I guess we’d better close the door,’ I suggested reticently, knowing that this would be wrong. `Yeah.’

“Vincent closed the door, and I crossed to turn on the light. The room was instantly warmer. `He’ll be back in a minute,’ I said with eyes glued to the glass door. `Yeah. Sure, he’ll be right back. Stupid dog.’ `Yeah, really.

“Fifteen still minutes scraped by. Vincent and I sat on the couch. `What’s he doing, you think?’ Vincent asked. I paused. `Probably looking for that stupid dog.’ We stopped to listen for a moment. Quiet.

“More minutes. `That idiot’s probably playing some stupid joke on us,’ Vincent suggested. `I bet you’re right,’ I agreed without belief. We waited.

“Close to an hour. `You think we should look for him?’ I asked. We both stared into the night for a pensive eternity. `No,’ Vincent finally answered with a tone that said, we don’t want what happened to him to happen to us. I agreed. We decided to wait up all night, but we soon fell asleep, huddled close, our heads on each other’s shoulders.

“I awoke just as the sun was coming up. Tyler hadn’t come back. I woke Vincent and bravely said, `We’ve got to go find Tyler!’ He jumped up without skipping a beat. We launched ourselves into the brightening and somehow smaller back yard.

“We found Tyler sitting with his knees tucked into his arms, leaning on a colossal tree, asleep. `Tyler!’ I yelled in surprise.

“His eyes fluttered open. He yawned. Vincent and I stared in disbelief. `Oh, hey Robert,’ Tyler said groggily. `You… you okay?’ I questioned. Tyler examined himself, quickly at first, sharing our disbelief, but then slowing, as if he were somehow disappointed. `Yeah… I’m alright.’ He stood and stretched, and his shoulders settled back broadly. I remember thinking that his back was straighter. He smiled a patronizing smile. `What’d you think, somebody’d get me?” `Oh, nah, no, uh-uh, we were just…’ Vincent and I babbled. Tyler smiled another smile, one I’d never seen before. I commented later to Vincent that Tyler looked a lot like his father. His eyes were deeper, sad. They searched the yard, where forts had stood, where evil had lurked, like a land-surveyor. `Last night…’ he said, `was no big deal.’ I had thought that Tyler would be mad at us, that he wouldn’t want to be our friend anymore after we had abandoned him. Instead he was just too happy to follow us, though somewhat languidly, on our new day’s adventures. No explanation was ever given for that night. And though all of us remained friends, we never spent the night at Tyler’s house again. The place was dead.”

Robert ended his story and settled his eyes on Muriel, who snored softly. “Muriel?” He tapped her shoulder, but she didn’t stir. He brushed his fingers against her hair and kissed her placid cheek just below her right eye, where several new lines were drawn. He read a few more pages of his book and set it on the floor beside the bed. He slipped out from beneath the sheets and tip-toed quietly to the bathroom. He turned on the bathroom light as he silenced the lamp in the bedroom. He looked at himself in the mirror, noting his own deepening lines. He turned toward his dark room and grinned. He flipped on the night-light and quickly dashed back to the bed.

Her / It / Them (about the movie Her)

Spike Jonze’s Her has won and may continue to win some of the year’s biggest awards, which was the final push I needed to see a movie of a sort I usually reserve for smaller screens. I was also curious because it resembles one of my favorite movies circa age 8, Electric Dreams (1984, math slightly misleading).


Electric Dreams stars the talented and forever-beautiful Virginia Madsen as well as “Hey he was on Twin Peaks!” Lenny von Dohlen. The latter buys a primitive home computer, which becomes sentient after he spills champagne on it, and he and the computer both fall in love with musician neighbor Madsen. Competition and a blend of comedy and pathos tinged with (adult me realizes) odd homoeroticism result in a film that, much like Her, can be enjoyed as a sweet fable about love and technology or a much deeper meditation on artificial intelligence and how it helps to map (as well as confuse) the boundaries of the human. At age 8, I mostly thought it was cool because I identified with the nerdy lead and liked the idea of a computer I could hang out with (imagine what you will about latent whatevers).


Her casts the computer as both the love object and the opposite sex from the male lead, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), so the homoeroticism of the earlier film disappears, but Jonze gives us something potentially much more interesting in its place: the computer, Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), is very conscious about the implications of her lack of a human body, and “her” consciousness creates a consciousness throughout the film about the potentially arbitrary relationship between gender and embodiment. Very early in the film, as Theodore sets up his new (as-advertised) sentient operating system, he gets to choose between male and female. The binary is as hard-wired as the position within the binary is fluid. This conception of fluidity, though not all-encompassing, leads the film to explore and challenge other aspects of human sexuality as seemingly “natural” as gender, sex, and opposite-sex desire, considering possibilities of polyamory as well as conceptions of interpersonal experience that break down individual subjectivity.


To carry this analysis further would go too far into the realm of spoilers, but briefly, the film ultimately aligns traditional human sexual identities with analog media and linear storytelling while it aligns post-human possibilities for identity (like Samantha) with digital media and its affinities for infinitude of detail (the ever-better resolution of Hi-Def) and the non-linear (the benefits of random-access as opposed to analog memory formats and linear linguistic syntax). This move isn’t intellectually revolutionary, although these ideas aren’t very mainstream either, so I don’t hesitate to say that Her is at least as subversive as its 80s predecessor, and it is really a lot better in other ways too (getting to that).

Thank you for continuing to read after the two previous dense paragraphs!!!

Sneaks Scarlett Johansson

Bottom line: Her doesn’t have much new ground to cover in terms of the basic issues it breaches with artificial intelligence, but it does enter some compelling territory with its thinking about gender and identity, which, if you think about it, any movie bold enough to call itself by the female pronoun (objective case, no less) really ought to do.


Other than its well-realized premise and great lead performers, the film’s most striking features are broadly its cinematography and score, specifically its color palette, depiction of Los Angeles, and selections from Arcade Fire’s most recent album Reflektor (the really good part of the album, i.e., the second half, side, record, whatever). The film’s Los Angeles is of an unspecified future in which the city’s public transportation system is somehow as regular a feature in upper middle-class existence as it is in New York; the skyline is beautiful, clean, and already full of buildings with green roofs; and every view is clean, sparkling, and friendly. This fantasy version of a place people sometimes unfairly call la-la land finds its complement in settings and costumes coordinated with post-production magic to create a stunning system of muted pastels and translucent primaries that lend almost every shot an aura of artificiality that is nonetheless gorgeous. In other words, Her‘s aesthetic matches Her, and the result is at times almost as mesmerizing as Theodore finds Samantha.


Arcade Fire’s oneiric tones underscore the film’s consciousness of its status as fantasy about fantasy, self-consciousness about self-consciousness. Thus Jonze continues on a postmodern trajectory begun in his early collaborations with Charlie Kaufman but in his own writing finds sensitivity and sympathy for his characters that were scarcer in those more sardonic works. I’m not sure that Her is his best movie ever or the best movie of the year, but it is definitely worth attention. The combination of sweet and smart is awfully endearing.