Triptych: The Three Doors

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July 1st, 2016 marks two years since my sister, Briana, died. It’s surreal to write those words. I promised myself that I would post a piece of writing either about, or inspired by, my sister annually on this date. It is this commitment I honor forthwith.

The grieving process is something that does not end. It’s just not that simple, though I, and others I’m sure, wish it were. It’s akin to the aging process, meaning that we cannot stop it; we must accept it and embrace it as a part of our life. Death, in fact, is as much a part of our lives as life itself. I’ve grown a great deal over the past two years, largely due to the tragic and untimely, passing of Briana. The notion that heartbreaking events put one’s life in perspective is accurate. I have dedicated the past decade of my life to pursuing my dream of making movies. This dedication moved me to Los Angeles, over three thousand miles away from my family, away from my friends, away from my sister. I rarely saw Briana these past ten years, and when I did see her, she was so numbed by drugs in an effort to shield herself from the debilitating effects of her borderline personality disorder that our reunions were limited, disconnected and generally worrisome.

If there’s one thing in life I fear most, it is regret that I fear. Regret is something that terrifies me—will I find myself on my deathbed regretting the choices I made during my tenure in this life? Regret, as both a literary and cinematic theme, consistently weaves its way through my work. It is, perhaps, a bit of an obsession, as any decent artistic theme should be, really. It is also obsession that brought me here to LA in the first place; it is obsession that has fueled my filmmaking pursuits.

My sister and I both shared a love for movies. While I decided to pursue movies as my artistic outlet, she decided to pursue painting, and one of my favorite pieces she created is a triptych of movie theater entrances—those ubiquitous square portals that exist inside a variety of multiplexes worldwide. Movies were, and continue to be, important to my family—the shared experience of going to the movies and watching these emotional rollercoasters on the big screen together and reacting to them collectively, has had a profound effect on me. Briana had a terrific laugh, and we shared many laughs together at the movies (not to mention countless laughs when we both discovered “Da Ali G Show” back in the day). That is why this particular painting—or, rather, three paintings—holds a great deal of meaning for me, and why it hangs on my wall today.

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The entrance to a movie theater is a magical thing: it’s like the door to a spaceship that transports you to worlds you could never fathom existed in other people’s minds. You proceed down a carpeted hallway, within which the unmistakable smell of buttered popcorn wafts through the air, to a succession of doorways, each entrance identical except for the glowing title of the movie that occupies the cavernous room beyond the door that week. Once you sit down in that plush seat, and the light of the projector illuminates itself above you, you are instantly whisked away to an endless number of worlds that stand immune to imaginative limitations.

I am in a business where imaginative limitations are something I stand firmly against. This distaste for such limitations extends to my personal life, particularly in light of the fact that my sister is no longer with us—you see, she is still with us, and it is because of memory and imagination that she is. Behind each of the doors she painted, projects a piece of her life.

In the final paragraph of my novel, “No Alternative,” the dead narrator describes how he would like to be remembered:

I have become the impression that’s perceived by my sister, or that’s how I’d like to be remembered, if given the choice. However Bridget remembers me. The extent of my existence, the part of me that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the colors she uses to paint me on the canvas in her head. And I hope she continues to paint.

It has been difficult for me to regain my focus on filmmaking. Part of the point of my novel was to demonstrate to my sister—while she was still with us—just how devastating it would be to lose a sibling through the realization of how important that sibling relationship is to the characters post-death. In a manner of speaking, the relationship I have with my sister today, post-death, has become more important to me than ever. Briana has become the impression that’s perceived by me. The extent of her existence, the part of her that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the light I use to project her onto the screen in my head.

I’ve made it my mission to use my craft, the craft my sister and I held dear, and every resource I have at my disposal—through both my own means and the goodwill of others—to capture her spirit on film, the film based on my novel, which was inspired by her life. The film is “No Alternative” and I have no alternative but to make it.

Music Is A Drug

No, really, it is. Music can significantly increase the levels of serotonin in a listener’s brain, which, as a result, positively impacts mood, sexual desires and the physical manifestation of those desires, overall cognitive function, regulation of body temperature, sleep and memory. Plug in your headphones and prescribe yourself a song.

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The ability of music to impact, and indelibly mark, our lives cannot be underestimated. Melody, and the infinite ways of conveying melody, has a way of bypassing left-brain modes of communication and injecting itself directly into our bloodstreams. Music, for me, is a roadmap to my memories. I often mark moments in my life by the songs I was listening to at the time—for some reason, I can almost always remember the music associated with the happenings in my life, which then helps me place the moment, reconstruct the event, and relive the memory with some semblance of context.

Here are just a few examples:

Nirvana’s “Drain You;” circa 1995: I played over-and-over-again while pumping myself up to call my first girlfriend and ask her out on our first date.

Weezer’s “Only In Dreams;” circa 1995: The first song I crowd-surfed to while listening to it live as Weezer played at Roseland Ballroom.

Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Blue Moon;” circa 1999: Used as an aid for sense memory (actor lingo) in preparing for my first stage performance in college, where I had to cry in a scene.

Metallica’s “Don’t Tread On Me;” September 11, 2001: In an effort to get my mind off the tragedy that was befalling the country, and the world, just a few blocks away from the skyscraper I was sitting in, I turned on the Opie & Anthony radio show on 102.7 and listened to them play this song. It was an unabashed appeal to those listeners looking for revenge, the immediate and swift kind, as the song preaches “settling the score….and preparing for war.” It’s a song that at that moment, for better or worse, appealed to the salivary glands of a nation scorned. It epitomized the knee-jerk reaction to a tremendously complex situation that no doubt led many to initially justify the unending quagmire we got ourselves into.

Radiohead’s “All I Need;” April 30, 2010: The song that I danced to with my wife, Rachel, at our wedding. It’s difficult to put the importance of this particular merger of song and moment into words. However, what I can say is that beyond sealing our love for each other, the moment proved that you can dance to Radiohead.

Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me” and Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli;” July 1, 2014 and July 5, 2014, respectively. When my sister, Briana, sunk into her coma, my wife rushed home to be with me. This was perhaps the worst twelve hours of my life—my parents had just gone on their first vacation in years; they were overseas, and thus unable to be reached until they woke up in the morning, which due to the time difference, was still a number of hours away. On her car ride home, the first song to play on my wife’s iPod was “Hear You Me,” which, under the circumstances, made her think of Briana. I didn’t know this until several days later. The day Briana died, July 1, 2014, I asked her husband—who was also a musician, like I was—if there were any songs she had been listening to recently, which had been special to her, which meant something. If so, we should learn it and play it at her funeral. He said, without thinking too long about it: “Hear You Me,” by Jimmy Eat World. When I told my wife this, she then told me how this song played in her car the other day, the day it happened, and she’d been thinking of that song ever since.

Perhaps it was Briana requesting the song. That’s certainly how it felt.

The next several days I spent learning the song and writing Briana’s eulogy and reflecting on her life, and my life with her. The minutes leading up to having to leave for her funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I felt like I was stuck. The only thing that could unstick me was Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli.” I played it on repeat, as loud as I possibly could through the miniscule speakers in my laptop, while I tied my tie, over and over again, in search of the perfect knot and proportional length.

The song is a tribute to Mykel and Carli Allan, the co-founders of Weezer’s Fan Club who were killed in a car crash on their way back from a Weezer concert.

Back in Wilson High/
Said I had these two best friends/
Till the school bus came/
And took my friends away/
Now I’m left alone at home/
To sit and think all day.

Hear you me, Mykel/
Hear you me, Carli.

The members of Jimmy Eat World were also friends with Mykel and Carli, and their song “Hear You Me” was both a tribute to them, and also an homage to the Weezer song, in which the phrase “Hear You Me” is sung to the two sisters, as though it’s trying to reach them beyond the grave. In Jimmy Eat World’s version, it’s less burning, and more mournful, with its chorus ringing:

May angels lead you in/
Hear you me my friends.
On sleepless roads the sleepless go/
May angels lead you in.

Briana’s husband, Anthony, my band, Latterday Saints (aka Guy Smiley), my wife, and Briana’s friends, Jillian and Allison, formed a group. We called ourselves “The Sleepless” and performed this song for my sister beside her coffin before she was lowered into the ground.

Music connects the dots; and we are all just dots on this planet, a wide and caustic spectrum of terra firma that is, more than often, unforgiving.

It’s music that I used as a framework for “No Alternative.” The landscape is the grunge era of the early 90’s, a milieu in which teenagers never felt more alone—this, at the very least, was the standard set by their moniker: Generation X. However, it was through music, which seemed to reflect that loneliness, disaffection and angst that brought an army of teenagers together. This movement in music, in my opinion, has never been matched—it was a cultural phenomenon, in both the worlds of alternative and rap music. It was a time when teenagers felt alienated, whether as a result of their place in the world or the hormones whirling inharmoniously inside their bodies. However, at this moment in 1994, teens were able to harness what is often uncontrollable energy through the music they played and listened to.

Music can do more than just mark one’s life, and through those markings, enhance the quality of it. If music is a drug, then life is, arguably, its active ingredient. While it’s not a cure for our shared disease of death, it gives us solace as we make our inevitable march towards it.

Music is the drug in “No Alternative”: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

“New York Movie”

The last picture taken of my sister, Briana, was snapped by her husband on the morning of her death. She was wearing a black and blue dress and standing in her living room in front of a framed print of Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie. Edward Hopper was one of her favorite painters. She loved others, too, but she had more prints of Hopper’s paintings hanging in her home than anyone else’s.

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In the photograph, the painting is obscured by Briana’s head, which covers the lower half of the figure of the woman usher, who is Hopper’s primary subject in the painting. The painting happens to be one of my favorite paintings, too. It involves cinema, after all. Hopper’s canvas splits the viewer’s focus. In one respect, your focus is drawn down the left side, past the backs of mostly empty theater seats and onto the screen. On the right side of the painting, the usher stands—a tall blonde woman, pensive in her countenance, her chin resting on her right hand, and her other arm supporting her right elbow, which in turn supports the weight of her head. A wall obstructs her view of the screen, not that she wants to see it. She can no doubt hear the film playing, and has most likely seen this motion picture too many times for her to count. She appears to be too preoccupied with the movie unfolding inside her head.

And we are, too, as the spectators of this painting. Neither the portion of the movie screen we see, nor the backs of the heads of the audience members, are competing for our attention. We are drawn to the usher’s contemplation, her melancholy perhaps—her own disjointed imagination inside a ceremonial room that makes its bones on the imaginations of others with ticket stubs.

When this last picture of my sister was taken, something strange occurred in the painting behind her: a reflection of an overexposed flash of light appeared over the usher’s face—the portion of the figure that was not obscured by my sister’s head. The source of this light is unknown; no camera flash was used. Perhaps the light in the photo is emanating from a window, but the flood of light seems too immense, and its shape—relative to the shape of the face—too exact.

It wasn’t until the moment I saw this photograph, and subsequently studied the painting closer, that I realized just how much this woman looks like my sister—or, I should say, my sister looked like this woman. It was uncanny. She had the same face. In addition to that, the color of her hair, and her clothes, were the same. My sister wore bangs most of her life, just as this woman was wearing her hair (see below for a photo of my sister when she was a teenager).

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The woman in New York Movie is based on Hopper’s wife, Jo, whom he often used as a reference model. The usher’s visage was sketched as Jo stood under an illuminated lamp in the hallway of his house. Like her husband, she was a painter, but she was never publically recognized as such—at least not to the extent that her husband was. However, she did name many of his paintings, including conceiving of the famous Nighthawks title.

What’s even stranger is that the woman in the painting, while based on Jo, looks less like her, and more like my sister. The shape of the nose, the cut of the cheekbones and the posture of the figure; it is Briana.

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Perhaps, I’m projecting. But what I see is what I see. Has my perception been altered since her death? Am I seeing things differently than they are (or than they were)?

Things as they are…are now how they were.

In Marcel Proust’s rumination on time, Remembrance of Things Past, he ponders what happens to the souls of those who cross that ethereal bridge to death: “I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.”

What was once Jo Hopper before July 1st, 2014, is now my sister after July 1st, 2014, and in this new thread of time, in which I and the others around me occupy, it was always my sister in that painting, for Edward Hopper, her favorite painter, had painted her into it. Perhaps I have found that particular object that has captured her soul, and I have recognized her voice calling to me, and the spell has been broken. Perhaps she has overcome death and returned to share her life: her effect on me is eternal. Her effect on me is the light that replaces the faces of masterpieces. It is the gateway to a life of memories that will continue to unfold upon the movie theater screen in my head. For the time being, my head is weighed down by these memories—just as the usher in the painting is weighed down by her own—but my hope is they will lift my head with happiness once again.

It is on this one-year anniversary of Briana’s death that I ponder the distinction between grief and mourning. It is said that grief is what we think and feel internally, while mourning is the external expression of our grief. This seems simple, on the surface of it all. But it’s the externalization of something intrinsically personal and unique and devastating that feels impossible. It feels impossible for me, especially now; unless I think of art as that externalization. I know my sister felt that way about art—it was her way of channeling her riptide of emotions, emotions that threatened to drown her on a daily basis. Like Hopper, she was a painter, like Hopper’s wife, she went largely unrecognized. Maybe that’s why I seek to recognize her—as a means of honoring her while simultaneously expressing my grief.

Hopper’s New York Movie articulates feelings that are oft impossible to verbalize. Works of art can capture the spirit, the energy, the life of a person, in a way that words cannot. When we think of definitions, we think of words, but isn’t the spirit of a person what ultimately defines a person? And doesn’t that spirit live on after death? While it’s hard for me to define the word spirit, I can say that my sister’s spirit did not die with her body; it remains alive today. I say that in neither a religious, nor secular, sense. I can feel her presence, her spirit, alive inside the brushwork of one of her favorite paintings, emanating from the figure of the female usher, like the way an unknown light source reflects off a pane of glass.

I wonder if her spirit has been captured in this painting, and her essence distilled within the photograph that was taken the morning of her death. Marcel Proust might think so. I’m not sure what I think. But I know what I feel.

I will not post this picture, because this picture is mine.

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