Dewdrops as stars

Innumerable as the stars of night,
Or stars of morning, dewdrops which the sun
Impearls on every leaf and every flower.
–   John Milton



Trust and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

There are many striking features in Robert Wiene’s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German silent horror film, but the one that stands out is the theme of trust. Who can be trusted? Is anyone or anything what it seems? In a horror movie, of course, trust is a shaky thing, but Wiene’s production values are so outlandish and distorted, that they elevate the sense of uncertainty and imbalance far beyond the plot. This is in keeping with Gerald Mast’s explanation in A Short History of the Movies: “The Expressionist filmmaker had to design and construct an artificial landscape that was graphic in inspiration and boldly disturbing, on and beneath the surface” (170). The sets, music, techniques, even the overacting and over-long shots all work to create an artificial landscape that is loaded with ambiguity. The audience can’t trust its own judgment because everything is so skewed.

The film’s opening is less expressionistic than the rest of the film, yet it makes a strong impression and sets up the question of who is in charge. Together with trust, control can be either reassuring or unsettling. By the looks of things, Caligari is going for unsettling. The iris effect opens onto the first scene that is hard to decipher. Two men sit motionless with what appears to be white string hanging around them, Francis’ head lolls to one side, and only the “string” moves slightly. They look like marionettes, but they come to life when the man in the background starts talking. It quickly becomes clear that these are not puppets, they are men sitting in a desolate garden, and the strings are actually dead branches. The setting could have been established without putting the branches in front of the men, but placing them there and making them white, not only makes them visible, it makes a statement. It’s a quick statement, but the visual impact lingers and raises the question that remains beyond the final scene: If they are puppets, who controls the string?

The iris effect continues throughout the film. At just the right moments it opens and closes the collective eye of the audience and gives a sense of the classic hypnotist’s refrain, “You are getting verrrry sleepy.” The shadows and strangeness of the setting reinforce the sense of being under a spell.

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When the story of the town clerk’s murder comes out, the intertitle tells us it is “the first of a series of mysterious crimes.” At this point, Cesare has been mentioned at the fair, but he has not been on screen yet. Because of Caligari’s earlier interaction with the clerk, the audience is led to think that he is the killer, but as the story progresses, we are redirected.

The killer could be Cesare or Caligari. As I watched, I realized there could be a third suspect. The love triangle between Francis, Alan, and Jane suggests that Francis had a motive for killing Alan. The bright lighting on Alan’s face, compared to the darkness around Francis when they are together, further pushes this idea. By the end of the film, we still don’t know who committed the murders. It’s true that Cesare is seen entering Jane’s room to kill her, but he can’t go through with it and only kidnaps her instead. This  situation leaves open the possibility that Cesare didn’t kill Alan or the town clerk.

Near the end of the film, we learn that the mad man is not Caligari, but Francis. In a scene that mirrors Dr. Caligari’s earlier capture, Francis is wrestled into a straightjacket and led into the room where Caligari was held in the earlier scene. The difference is that when Francis is dragged in, the chaotic paintings that were clear when Caligari was there, have been scribbled over and blurred. This example of Expressionist technique is a strong representation of change and confusion. Again, the audience doesn’t know whom to trust. While Francis lies agitated and rocking, Dr. Caligari is now the sane-looking Dr. Sonnow, the director of the asylum. Dr. Sonnow doesn’t wear the round eyeglasses that gave Dr. Caligari such a crazed look. His hair stripes are gone and so are the matching gloves. After Dr. Sonnow tries unsuccessfully to calm Francis, he signals the orderlies to sit Francis up. This recollects the scenes where Caligari sat Cesare up, like a puppet. Dr. Sonnow turns toward the camera, reaches into his pocket, and puts on the round glasses. He turns back to Francis whose eyes instantly widen and he goes still. As Caligari/Sonnow looks into Francis’ eyes, Francis stops moving, his breathing calms, and the orderlies lie him back down. We don’t know if he is hypnotized by Dr. Caligari/Sonnow, but it appears that he is. Caligari turns to the camera again and pointedly removes his glasses. The intertitle says, “At last I understand his mania. He thinks I am that mystic Caligari–! And now I also know how to cure him.” The final scene has Caligari putting his glasses back into his jacket pocket. The iris slowly closes in on his face and holds for a long shot. His appearance is more Sonnow, than Caligari. The glasses, the clownish hair stripes, and the gloves are gone once more. The maniacal expression is changed, but it’s not gone. Although he looks like Sonnow, shades of Caligari remain, and that is chilling.

We’re left to wonder: Who is in charge? Who is the mad man? Can those in control be trusted. Interestingly, the behind the scene story of the addition of the framing narrative against the wishes of the writers, reinforces those concerns. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari doesn’t answer these questions, but by virtue of plot and production values, it asks them again and again.


Works cited

Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin. “The German Golden Age.” A Short History of the Movies. 11th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. 170. Print.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dir. Robert Wiene. Perf. Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover. Decla-Bioscop, 1920. Netflix. Web. 29 August 2015.


Laundry Dance

Blue Shirt

On laundry day, like Narcissus, I’m lured by the reflection.
The washer’s drum my River Styx, our clothes draw my affection.
Hot water fills the old machine as soap suds burst and bubble,
Obscuring all the grimy grit from daily toils and trouble.

I sniff your dark blue shirt once more, before I dunk it in.
A deep inhale, a smile, a sigh. It’s eau de you, My Sin.
The agitator rumbas to its Afro-Cuban beat,
While bunching up our undies in a mangled, tangled heap.

Your pant leg circles my red skirt. My bra shimmies your sock,
Like the rhythmic spinning cycles of a syncopated clock.
And sometimes these entanglements tear a tenuous thread,
Our delicate connection frays to raggedy instead.

Then everything goes silent just before the rinse arrives,
To sanitize the slurry of our busy, messy lives.
We fold together neatly, and we put our clothes away,
Closely snuggled in the closet to be worn another day.


The Tiny Revolution


Have you seen the overweight cat with the blank stare asking, “I can has cheezburger?”

Has Willy Wonka patronizingly asked you a question?

Did you see the determined toddler enthusiastically fist-pumping his latest success?

If so, you are familiar with the world of Internet memes, those photos, images, hashtags, or videos that spread virus-like, via the Internet. They sometimes take the form of a pithy caption on a photo designed to make you laugh or roll your eyes. In a growing number of cases, memes compel socially positive action, but they are often dismissed as low culture, vulgar, and a waste of time.

The Sorrow and the Joy, But Mostly the Joy

Mom's sleep maskMy Mama died a year ago today. It simultaneously feels like forever ago, and just yesterday. At the memorial service we held in her hometown, I had the privilege of giving her eulogy. Afterward I promised some family and friends that I’d put my notes together and email them a copy of what I’d said.

I had every intention of following through, but when I sat down to do it, I couldn’t. It felt too fresh, and I felt too sad. My notes didn’t make sense, and as is often the case when I speak publicly, I had no memory of what I’d actually said, how I strung my thoughts together, or even if I just stood in front of a church-load of people and spouted gibberish.

But a year has passed and even though it still feels too fresh and I sometimes feel too sad, I can hear my mother’s voice in my head. JUST DO IT ALREADY! So, I’m doing it already. As promised, here is my Mama’s Eulogy, by me.

Thank you for being here to honor Anita … my mother.  And thank you also for the love and support so many of you have shared with my family these past weeks and throughout the past year during her illness.  Your care and your kindness made the unbearable bearable for her and for us, and we thank you. Continue reading “The Sorrow and the Joy, But Mostly the Joy”

Shooting Stars and the Promise of Hope

starI saw a shooting star when I was out running this dark, early morning. That’s exciting for many reasons, but primarily because 1) I was out running this dark, early morning, and 2) I saw a shooting star!

That bright solitary shooter lifted my mood in the way shooting stars do, and it helped me finish a tough run with unexpected oomph.  It also reminded me that the Geminid Meteor Shower is this week, Thursday and Friday.  I’ll be out there watching, bundled up against the cold, mug of hot chocolate in hand, perhaps something harder.  I’ll take the quiet time as a chance to look at the past year.

2012.  It’s been a dilly and it’s not over yet  There’s the Geminid this week, the end of the world on the 21st (as if!), Christmas on the 25th, and a New Year’s Eve 5K run on the 31st. It’s a busy few days wrapping up a busy year.

In Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert wrote of Emma:

She did not believe that things could remain the same in different places, and since the portion of her life that lay behind her had been bad, no doubt that which remained to be lived would be better.

If you know much about Emma Bovary, you know things didn’t turn out to be better for her.  But I’m going to ignore her end for now and think about her hope instead, especially as the new year approaches. For me, 2012 was manic.  Heart-pumping highs, heart-breaking lows.  As 2013 gets ready to chime in, remnants of the highs and lows linger. It’s going to be a year of decisions and changes. I’m not a fan of decisions and changes.  I like static; it’s easier.  But new years hold the promise of new hope, new oomph, new excitement. Even after welcoming in 50 of them, I still feel that way.

So, with a wit more wisdom and a smidge less naivete than Madame Bovary, I’m keeping the promise of hope and looking forward to 2013 with the thought that no doubt that which remains to be lived will be better. Not that it’s been all bad. It certainly hasn’t. I’ve enjoyed far more than my share of heart-pumping highs and I’m going to do my part to make sure that continues. I’m going to keep running, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to keep looking for shooting stars.

PS: Happy birthday, Gustav Flaubert

Monday Motivator: A Writer’s Essential To-Do List

The Monday Motivator, as it says down at the bottom there, is a quote posted on Mondays to encourage, inspire, and motivate writers. Today’s quote is a little different. It’s a long quote, very, very, very long.  More than 2,500 words long. But motivate? Encourage? Inspire?  Oh yes, it most definitely does.

25 THINGS WRITERS SHOULD START DOING (ASAFP) is from, the blog of writer Chuck Wendig. His “About” page warns that the site is unmercifully profane. I don’t know that I’d call it unmerciful, but he is a little saucy with the language, so if  your delicate sensibilities can’t take it, don’t visit.  If, however, you want to read a fantastic list that goes far beyond the perfunctory Writer’s Digest pats on the head and gentle nudges, you must click over and see what Mr. Wendig has to say.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Monday Motivator is a quote posted on Mondays to encourage, inspire, and motivate writers of all skill levels and across genres.  If you have a favorite quote you’d like to share, let me know and I’ll post it here.  Click here to see past Monday Motivators.

SOPA/PIPA and John Milton’s Areopagitica

After much research, I decided to join yesterday’s Internet-wide protest of SOPA/PIPA.

On the surface, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP) are anti-piracy bills. Antipiracy is a good thing; it’s necessary, and when administered properly it protects artists, writers, musicians, etc. The problem with these bills is that they are so broadly written they go too far and allow for abusive control and censorship — not good things.

SOPA was shelved before yesterday’s protest, but it’s not dead yet. PIPA goes to vote on Tuesday, but support is fading fast. We do need antipiracy laws in place. We most certainly do, but not at the expense of free speech.

As I researched SOPA/PIPA, I remembered a post I did back in June 2010 on Areopagitica, John Milton’s passionate essay on the right to freedom of speech and expression.  I thought it was worth repeating:

Enjoy Freedom of Speech? Thank John Milton

For more details on SOPA or PIPA, this video from Fight for the Future does a great job explaining it.

Silent Writers goes Oprah!

The February 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine includes an A to Z feature titled “Express Yourself,” an alphabetical roundup of possibilities for showing the world who you are. Listed under Q for “Quiet” is … drumroll, please. The Silent Writers Collective!

Thank you to Rachel Bertsche for including us and writing such a nice piece. If you haven’t seen the full article, it’s definitely worth reading. And while you’re at the bookstore, pick up Rachel’s new book, MWF Seeking BFF, her hilarious and touching memoir about the tough, sometimes awkward, and ultimately rewarding experience of making new friends as an adult.