[Table of Contents]



Nicholas Rombes



Grace Notes

In a weirdly candid and strangely toned documentary about the making of The Exorcist, Leap of Faith, William Friedkin talks about what he calls grace notes, the little scenes, the remainders, the moments in his films that don't necessarily advance the narrative or plot. He mentions a wordless sequence that has Ellen Burstyn (who plays Regan's mother) walking home in the afternoon Georgetown sunlight, the camera seeing what she sees: children playing, nuns walking as the wind billows out their robes, a motorcycle driving by, the leaves blowing in the breeze. Nothing happens in the short scene and yet it grounds the movie in something deeper than its plot, releasing it, momentarily, from the strictures of narrative.
     I can imagine that, in the making of a film, there would be pressure to not shoot or include such grace notes. Why spend time and money on a scene that doesn't advance the plot? And I sometimes feel that way about my dead sister Kori: it's the small, inconsequential things I remember and I wonder, is that enough? The sunlight on a yellow barrette. My hands on her back, pushing her on the backyard swing. Her stirring the powdered lemonade in the glass pitcher. An accumulation of moments that don't add up to the story of her life, and yet they're all I have.
     They are my grace notes.


Trees Don't Scream

I think of the little details of the river I grew up on and the smallest of things: the mud, the wild flowers, the willow trees along the banks whose long, tendril-like branches dipped into the water, swayed not only by the currents of the wind but of the water, too. In Rhythmanalysis, Henri Lefebvre writes: "You perceive that each plant, each tree, has its rhythm, made up of several: the trees, the flowers, the seeds and fruits, each have their time. In place of a collection of fixed things, you will follow each being, each body, as having its own time above the whole. Each one therefore having its place, its rhythm, with its recent past, a foreseeable and a distant future." The break-up with my parents was years of sound and fury, furious voices, poisonous words.
     But trees don't scream at you. Rocks don't scream at you. Neither do fireflies, or raindrops, or weeds, or tomato plants, or rolling waves coming in on Lake Michigan. What Stephen Crane identified as an indifferent universe is, for me, a sweet thing.
     In its bare, neutral is-ness there is solace.


Blue Velvet I

In the fall semester of 1987 Dr. Fricke, in our non-fiction creative writing class in Williams Hall at Bowling Green State University, would tell an anecdote about his bitter divorce that I can only partially remember, and in telling this would mention that he'd recently rented, on VHS, a film called Blue Velvet.
     Dr. Fricke's anecdote involved a barn at night in Nebraska that he'd wandered into where a cow was being slaughtered and where he saw its heart being removed. In class he held up his arm and, shaking his large fist gently as if he was holding his own heart there, said this is what my wife did to me, tore out my heart.
     It was then, watching him in that classroom in Williams (the same building where Carolyn Forché had earned her MFA a decade earlier, though I didn't know this at the time) that I discovered that what I was learning wasn't really about the books and movies we were studying but rather about how to think about them, what to say about them, what sorts of questions to ask about them. How to let them inhabit us, so that we, in turn, could inhabit them. This is how I came to live inside of Blue Velvet, and outside of Ohio.
     Dr. Fricke spoke with an almost-lisp and left the University suddenly, it seemed, the next year. I didn't think much about him until I became a professor myself and, years after mentioning Harmony Korine's film Gummo in film class one afternoon a student wrote to tell me how watching that film set her down a path that lead to her career as a video artist. Through an assemblage of texts and references what Dr. Fricke was really teaching us was how to curate ourselves against sadness. I really believe that.
     Even though some of us in the class couldn't see it coming yet, it was there, sadness on the horizon and Fricke mentioned Blue Velvet because, as he unlocked his way through it, it brought him hits of pleasure. Blue Velvet as an antidote to sadness.


The Wicked and the Brave

In the aftermath of my sister Kori's death in 1975, after long her 14-months long and body-wrecking struggle with a brain tumor, I had been the good son, the brave boy. I was ten-years-old. I had been marked as such not by any courage on my part, but by my mother and father and my aunts who canonized me as the special one, the one who witnessed not only his sister's death, but his parents' witnessing of her death. Although Kori went to the hospital for chemotherapy she suffered and died in our home, on a sofa we'd made up as a bed that we prayed over so many times. There was no care a hospital could provide, in 1975, that we could not.
     Age twelve, thirteen, fourteen the aura around me grew. And on into high school, and college. My Aunt Linda, from across the border in Michigan, especially held me dear. Her body would gently collapse into itself as she approached me at a family birthday or graduation or Fourth of July party, the slow, summer Maumee River behind our house. She'd gently place the palms of her hands on my cheeks, bringing her face close to mine as she looked into my eyes with something like pity and awe.
     Oh Nicky, she'd say, it's so good to see you.
     Her heavy perfume. Her thick mascara.
     Oh Nicky.
     Fast forward 30 years. "You are such a fucking disappointment," Mom says, "I have to say to you Nick, I wonder what my life would have been like with Kori." In the way that we cannot ever know, not really, what goes on behind the doors of any home, my extended family did not detect the inner rot that began to consume our family in the mid-1990s. Almost comically, in retrospect, my Aunts still saw me as a tragic figure, a little boy who lost his sister in front of his eyes.
     Oh Nicky.
     I could only smile, let her hold my face, and think, Oh Aunt Linda, you have no idea.


Blue Velvet II

Haunted by its own warped internal logic, its inability to escape from the dream, the nightmare, it has created, Blue Velvet feels all the more real for its unrealness. I feel an affinity for its disordered world. Near the end of the film the camera pulls back, low like in the beginning when it entered the lawn grass, to reveal Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) lounging, Sandy (Laura Dern) just having told him that "lunch is ready." A concrete angel looks over him as he suns himself in his black pants and heavy black shoes. Order has been restored, but something has changed, something is different. You can feel it in the framing of the shot, in the oddly canted way that Sandy and the house bend inward, towards the center.
     In his book In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker questions the assumption that human thought "is always determined within the framework of the human point of view." The answer seems obvious: of course human thought is human. What else could it be? Thacker proposes a radical alternative: "Scientists estimate that ninety percent of the cells in the human body belong to non-human organisms (bacteria, fungi, and a whole bestiary of other organisms). Why shouldn't this also be the case for human thought as well? In a sense, this book is an exploration of that idea—that thought is not human." Against the grain of our contemporary preference that art engender and nurture empathy, what of art's ability to suggest a radical otherness, an estrangement rather than affinity?
     Blue Velvet's disorientations stem from the feeling that whatever terrible power is at work in its world is not some result of human psychology; its characters aren't reduced to pathologies. Evil comes from somewhere else, some place beyond human beings, and the restoration of order at the film's end—with the iconic Robin that doesn't look quite real—feels as false as my own restoration years after the scalding words of my mother have cooled off and left me, at last, with an uneasy peace.


Zones of Influence

Was my Ohio part of the Midwest, or some other region? A hot new book made the rounds in the late 1980s at Penn State, while my wife and I were grad students there: Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction. In a section called "Ohio, Oz and other Zones" McHale describes how Ohio figures as a weird, postmodern zone that juxtaposes and superimposes the real and unreal:

The zone sometimes appears where we least expect it. In Ohio, for instance. In the literary and the popular imagination alike, Ohio has long maintained, as they say, a low profile. Its 'image' is one of colorlessness and poverty of associations. It is middle-American in every sense: middling in its landscapes and natural phenomena, culturally middling, sociologically middling—not, one would think, raw material for ontological improvisation. And yet . . . a number of postmodernist writers have chosen to improvise on the theme of Ohio.

There was something that rang deeply true in McHale's words, a truth that got at the weird space of Ohio (not really a fly-over state, and yet . . .) and its wobbly geography (bordered by Kentucky and the sort-of-South on the one end and Michigan and the sort-of North on the other). My own family's patch of northwest Ohio was the village of Waterville—around 15 miles downriver from Toledo—a leafy town surrounded by vast and open farms of soybean and corn. The Miami and Erie Canal (completed in 1845, the year Frederick Douglass published his narrative) had come through Waterville, and my first job—mowing lawns—was on Canal Street, though who cares about history like that when you're a kid?
     Ben Marcus set his 2002 novel Notable American Women in Ohio, complete with a section entitled "The Ohio Heartless" and lines like "It was a night of pure Ohio silence" and "Jane Marcus occurs in Deep Ohio." In interviews, Marcus has said that he's never been to Ohio and that he set the book there because he didn't know anything about it, that "it was a blank slate for me."
     I really resented this Ben Marcus person for choosing Ohio as his blank slate. Go there, won't you, and it won't be a blank slate anymore! I thought. But then I realized that, Ohio, it was a blank slate for me, too.






This essay was inspired by a few particular moments. From the movie Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey, walking through his neighborhood at night, looks up at into the trees overhead ([in this clip], seconds 11-13), and from passages from Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs and Iowa Geological Survey: Annual Reports, 1925 and 1926, with Accompanying Papers, by George F. Kay, State Geologist, and James H. Lees, Assistant State Geologist.