South Carolina (where I live) has finally decided to invite the winter season, meaning it’s cold outside—for the American South, anyway. I love the cold, there’s something cozy about bundling up and walking to a local coffee shop, as I often did when I lived in Montana. The cold is also harrowing, an unrelenting wildness that welcomes darkness and death alike. This week, we’re exploring that bitter cold on screen.
I used to walk alone in the snow daily. I lived in Montana for two years while working toward my Master’s degree. I didn’t have a car. It was too icy to bike. The bus system was reliable, but sometimes not the quickest option. So, I laced up my winter boots and covered myself in layers until I thought I could walk a half mile or so. Winter in Montana is dark, too. Some days it would be dark when I got to campus and then it’d be dark when I left campus. It’d be cold and dark as early as October, like when I walked to the local independent theater—The Roxy Theater—for the Montana Film Festival, which is where I saw One Man Dies a Million Times.
I went to the screening by myself, my interest piqued during class a few days earlier when my Politics of Food professor mentioned that a film about a seed bank was screening. I thought it sounded nice, cheery, hopeful. Instead, director Jessica Oreck’s film invited the audience to witness a dark, bitter cold. The film follows a group of botanists who operate a seed bank in Russia. The film takes place during the Siege of Leningrad—kind of. At the beginning, an epigraph tells us that the film takes place both in the future and the past. During the “siege,” the botanists vow to protect the seed bank while facing horrific conditions—it’s freezing and they’re without power or food. People are dying. Despite working together, a profound aloneness permeates throughout the film.
Winter itself seems to have two sides: the cozied up next to the fire feel and the desolate, frigid nightmare. January and February, especially, are harbingers of the latter. One of my favorite films—The Blackcoat’s Daughter (also called February)—forms malignancy out of the winter. After not being picked up before a February school break, students Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are left alone with their school’s nuns as they wait for their parents. Intercut with the story of Kat and Rose is the story of Joan, a young woman traveling alone to the school for unknown reasons. The cold of winter leaves all three women lonely, without support.
The muted colors and bitter displays of cold in the film—characters are wrapped in jackets and snow has blanketed the ground—create an atmosphere filled with dread. In the film, Kat, Rose, and Joan each contend with their loneliness, seeking companionship but unable to form healthy connections because they are separated by winter’s expanse. Winter often feels expansive. After the holidays, especially, winter’s new persona shutters any sense of bustle and familial connection as we all trudge through the darkness in anticipation of springtime.
Kat, who sees her parents’ death in a dream, turns to the comforting figure in the school’s boiler room. The furnace where she prostrates is the only place of warmth and comfort in the film, despite its ominous appearance. As she becomes attached to the mysterious entity—which could be a demon—she carries out violent acts to please its nature. In freezing weather, it’s easy to want to seek comfort in whatever type of warmth and companionship we can find.
The unwelcome weather of winter makes it seem like there may never be reprieve from the treacherous conditions. The young woman (Jessie Buckley) in I’m Thinking of Ending Things expresses anxiety about the winter weather throughout the film, which only worsens. She and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to his parents house for dinner in the dead of winter. Despite their close proximity in the small car, the couple has considerable distance between them. In narration, the young woman repeats that she’s “thinking of ending things.”
Winter’s cold only grows stronger throughout the film, culminating in an unforgiving storm. As the storm worsens, the young woman’s rift with Jake deepens and the intercut scenes of a school janitor mesh more and more with the film’s reality. The film begins to end when the young woman and Jake stop for milkshakes at an ice cream shop in the middle of nowhere. The space surrounding the shop is a dark void of bitter cold; the young woman wraps herself tightly in a jacket as she orders while Jake waits in the car. Frigidity only increases as the young woman and Jake make a stop at the school where the janitor works.
Jake leaves his girlfriend in the car while he enters the school building. After she locks herself out of the car, she enters the school herself and finds the janitor there. In the warmth of the building, the janitor and young woman are able to have a moment of genuine connection—the only meaningful connection in the entire film. Following a series of surreal events, the young woman and Jake cease to exist in the film’s reality. The janitor makes his way to his pickup truck in the school’s parking and dies. A final shot shows the janitor’s truck blanketed in snow, his body covered under a layer of cold.
It’s not just that he died alone—the fact of the winter storm exacerbated his loneliness. Only upon his death does the sun shine, signaling that his torment in isolation has finally ended. The dark of winter means death and desperation, only relenting in the face of light.
When my partner mentioned I might like a new Netflix show (airs on TNT in the US) called SnowPiercer because it takes place on a train, I was skeptical. The thumbnail of the show featured an image of a train, but so did the movie poster for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—and the Hogwarts Express was in less than 10% of that movie. I assumed, as I had come to expect, there would be an obligatory train-boarding scene, a scenic view, and then a shift to someplace off-train for the remainder of the series.
How wrong was I. After a graphic-book style introduction showing how humanity has, in trying to cool the earth down, managed to freeze the atmosphere and send temperatures plummeting, there is a train-boarding scene. Perhaps the most violent one I’ve ever seen on screen, as ticket-less passengers scramble to board SnowPiercer: humanity’s last hope for survival. Casualties ensue, and those stowaways barricade themselves at the back of the train, the tail, away from the rich who bought tickets on this biblical train fueled with a never-ending machine, and the people brought there to serve them.
After an opening sequence comprising of line-drawn train schematics, and a glimpse of the never-ending loop of train tracks marked on a map, the show opens in a narrow carriage, where ticketless passengers (known as “tailies”) are fighting for survival, and basic human rights on SnowPiercer. Episode after episode follows these different factions as they struggle to co-exist onboard a magnificent train, 1001 cars long, which in addition to hundreds of people has livestock, living quarters and, surprisingly, a personal aquarium.
I’m no train buff, but there’s something about stories on trains that delight me: from the western style train in Westworld, to the animated and fantastical Polar Express. And SnowPiercer effortlessly blends together what makes the train story so appealing – close quarters brimming with tension, and breathtaking views that provide the perfect backdrop to the passengers’ journeys: literally and figuratively.
The cold, wintry backdrop on SnowPiercer gave me literal chills, and I drank it in: episode after episode aboard this giant train hurtling across the globe carrying humanity’s last survivors: with a third season to be released soon. The show also tackles issues relating to human rights, societal classes and climate change with dark humour and violent, clashing rebellions, betrayals, and murder at every bend in the track.
How had I never heard of this before, I wondered. Perhaps it was new. Wrong, again. There was a film of the same name in 2013, directed by Bong Joon-ho (best known for writing and directing Parasite), and both were adapted from a French graphic novel: La Transperceneige. The graphic novel is actually part of a series of four, and is honestly unrecognisable as a source material. Apart from the train itself: there are few similarities. The show introduces stacks of new characters, story lines, and an entirely new main plot.
I am firmly aboard the SnowPiercer train and I never want to get off – partly because I would literally freeze to death in subzero temperatures, but also because it gives me the story-on-a-train I have been dreaming about, and so much more. Godspeed, SnowPiercer.
by Kati Bowden
Screen Break is back, baby! So often, the book community talks about books that we love, or that made us fall in love, or that gave us warm fuzzies, or left us, in some way, feeling better for having read them. I know I've personally recommended many of my favorite stories here and in other spaces based on a sense of feeling seen or held or comforted. It's only natural to want to share positive experiences with others; it's the human to want to feel joy.
Well, throw that idea out of the window, Reader, because I've got nothing hopeful to offer you today. This week, we're talking about books that leave us with cold, bleak feelings in our chests when we finish them. You'd be hard-pressed to find any comfort here. The following books take serious, contemplative looks at different aspects of our world with realistic eyes, and reveal honest, hard truths that leave us thinking long after we've read "The End." These are the books that remind us to be human, and that humanity comes imbued with tragedy and hardship. Buckle up, Reader, because these are Kati's Top Five Bleak Books.
1. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Emezi's Pet is a work of art...about a work of art. In the town of Lucille, there are no "monsters"(i.e. racists, white supremacists, abusers of power—the typical pitfalls of modern society), because years ago, angels arrived and cast them out. We learn this through our young protagonist, a young girl named Jam, who wants to learn more about monsters and angels. They were before her time, and she yearns to understand exactly how her world is different from that of her predecessors. But when Jam accidentally calls a real-life angel into the world, accidentally summoning it through one of her mother's paintings, she's terrified to learn that the world she's been told is safe may not be so. Pet, the angel, tells Jam that it has a job to do, a monster to hunt, and that Jam knows the monster well. With themes of abuse and child endangerment, Pet asks its readers, is there a such thing as a perfect world, if that world is inhabited by humans? Is humanity itself a gateway to wickedness, evil etched into our very bones, inescapable no matter what good we try to do?
2. A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
Felicity Darrow and Ellis Haley are the stars of their class at Dalloway School. For Felicity, her reputation is something she's spent years cultivating among her peers, bolstered by the tragic loss of her girlfriend the year before that made her name spread like wildfire across the campus. Ellis is a child prodigy, an acclaimed novelist at only seventeen, who has come to Dalloway on the tails of her personal fame to do research for her next book. The school's own tragic history—dead girls, witchcraft, unsolved mysteries—inspires Ellis. Felicity knows that history all too well, having grown obsessed with the infamous Dalloway Five before her hiatus. It only makes sense that the two girls will gravitate towards one another, sharing more than just their knowledge and obsession with the occult. But Felicity isn't a reliable narrator, as her own trauma causes blackouts in her memory, making her doubt her own knowledge and life. Though I personally found A Lesson in Vengeance a bit too aesthetically-drenched for my personal taste, the story at its core explores the pressures of perfection and expectation under the weight of unresolved, unaddressed trauma. When we ignore or try to push through tragedy, we have no choice but to endure more. But where does it end?
3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vignes twins will always be identical, no matter how deep the divide between the lives each girl has built for herself. For Desiree, returning to her small hometown after escaping an abusive husband feels somehow both like defeat and safety; for Stella, disappearing without a trace seems like the only hope for a bright future wherein she can pass and live as a white woman. Both women start their own families, build their own worlds independent of one another, but they cannot escape the truth of the other. Stella is Black, with a Black twin, a Black niece, and a Black family history that threatens the pristine, Caucasian image she's cultivated in her Southern California home. Desiree lives fully accepting her race, but can't help wondering if Stella's decision to hide the truth was the right one, if the life her sister found when she gave up her identity was worth that sacrifice. Through their own trauma, the lives of their inquisitive daughters, and an identity that they wear without intending to, these twins find their way back to one another again and again. Bennett's novel explores the complex question of "passing" in American society, and comes away without a true answer, but instead with an exploration of self, love, and family that leaves readers facing the unanswerable "what if" of American racial politics in the 20th century.
4. Horrid by Katrina Leno
A ghost story at its core, Horrid joins Jane just as she and her mother move cross-country after the tragic death of Jane's father. Leaving the family with horrendous debt and grief, her father's death has forced Jane's mother to return to her family's abandoned Maine estate, North Manor, in a town where everyone seems to know a little too much about the now-infamous North clan. Jane doesn't mind, though; the house is an adventure, a distraction of sorts from the grief of her loss and the shock of having to start over. But her mother isn't handling the changes half as well as Jane. Something about being back at North Manor seems to bring out the worst in the new widow, making her bitter, tired, and sometimes cruel towards Jane. And something is changing in Jane, too—her violent streaks are returning, and she may be seeing things behind locked doors, hearing the voices of the dead in the halls. Handling unprocessed grief and generational trauma, Horrid has an ending that does little to inspire anything other than dismal fear, disappointment, or despair in readers. There's a strange acceptance, though, that when the darkest secrets go unchecked and unresolved, there is no light at the end of the tunnel—just a darkness that buries us underneath.
5. The Poppy War Series by R. F. Kuang
If you haven't heard of The Poppy War and its reputation of causing great emotional damage, I am both so sorry and so thrilled to be the one to introduce it to you. This series follows Rin, a war orphan who needs to escape the cruelties of her impoverished, drug-ridden, war-torn life. With incredible work and skill, she manages to test her way into the best war school in the country, but it's clear that this doesn't mean she's beat the odds. Training alongside the children of the political elite proves that Rin will simply need to outwork them with every ounce of her mind, body, and spirit. But a war is looming around the edges of the country's tentative peace, and when it erupts, Rin and her classmates will be thrust into the hardships of battle before they can properly graduate. Rin can't allow herself to become just one more fallen soldiershe knows there is something laying dormant within her, ready to burn down the world and build a new one. But no matter how much faith she places in this power, the realities of war threaten to destroy her at every opportunity. The Poppy War series is perhaps one of the most harrowing, fantastic, well-plotted war stories to be published in recent years. Again, this is a story that instills hopelessness in its readers, but that emptiness constantly butts against the stubborn belief that there must be something better on the other side of war, as Rin insists time and again. This series is starkly realistic, and not for the faint of heart: be prepared for descriptions of torture, sexual assault, bodily mutilation, genocide, and innumerable forms of death. These are the wages of war. There are no victors when the price is human life.
If you're looking for a story that will empty you out, ground you in the world, make you wonder about the facts of reality, perhaps cry at the hopelessness of existence, then I hope you pick up one of these books and find the questions and outlets you need, Reader. I also suggest finding something comforting to read immediately afterwards, or scheduling yourself a nap or a good, deep sob. In this new year, we're facing the hardship of the world head-on.
Write a Mini-Essay for Thursday Matinee
From Fanfiction to the Screen
Release Date: January 27, 2022
Fanfiction has been reworked and published as a book and then made into a movie and now we are all consuming fanfiction whether we know it or not, right? Fanfiction also gives our favorites life after the screen turns black. For this issue, I want to see your pitches on anything related to fanfiction and the screen. Tell about your experience with fandoms online, your favorite movies that were once fanfiction, the resurgence of everyone's love for Twilight, and anything else you come up with.
I will not accept pitches on SuperWhoLock for this issue, as there is an issue dedicated to that planned for March.
Pitch Sydney (email@example.com) by Thursday, January 13.
Essay due Thursday, January 20.
A Reflection on Romcoms
Release Date: February 10th
The season of love is here, which means it’s time to snuggle up with your S/O and watch a romcom. These are movies we know will have a happy ending, where love overcomes all. Most of our favorites are from bygone times and outside of holiday movies, romcoms have not been as popular as of late. For this issue, I want pitches on why we all still love our late 2000s/early 2010s romcoms, the terrible representation of diverse sexualities in romcoms, why everyone should watch your favorite romcom, the role of a romcom in the age of dating apps and TikTok lesbians, and how the plots of romcoms influence modern dating.
Pitch Sydney (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Thursday, January 27.
Essay due Thursday, February 3