"Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together and they add up the story of a life." - Rob Sheffield, Love Is A Mixtape
I am a tiny master of mixtapes with battle plans and The Distance Between Us was my ground zero. It had a Fra Lippo Lippi title track and the songs ran out of air on Side B. Corny, melodramatic, unremarkable but primordial. And a hit. Also, I got better at it.
I came to mixtapes with no guru nor method. I just knew to make them and what to make them for. I thought myself alone in the endeavor, a lonesome freak. And it wasn't until much later that the point of making one veered away from the romantic and that I would meet others with passions just like mine. But back then, everybody else around me just bought greeting cards. Some took the trouble to write love letters. I wrote some of my own, too, and ghost-wrote a few. But I couldn't help myself. Mixtapes verged on the sort of social deficit that makes ordinary people give bedroom shut-ins like me odd looks. And I do have some way with words. But there are spots they can't hit that words with a tune under it can.
" . . . that's how you tell (someone) you like them, you make them tapes of songs that are secretly about how you feel . . ." - Mary Jane Watson, Sensatonial Spiderman Annual 1 : To Have And To Hold
I make mixtapes for the world, old friends, new friends, future friends. With toil and trouble. And a programmers' zeal. But it's the type Mary Jane talks about that's my original bill of goods, my kung fu . This type of mixtape is the shared conspiracy of the tongue-tied and terrified, smoke signals to possible lovers, coveting your attention if nothing else but can I carry your books and walk you home and can we talk from time to time and maybe dance a little and how did you like the third song on Side B? I was born with benign stage fright, the quintessentially and at times painfully shy guy with a slightly overdeveloped mush gland. I came to mixtapes naturally. I never figured Mary Jane to be the sort who would,though.
That bit with the mixtape's from when she and Peter Parker were still teenagers stumbling into each other. She overcame her shyness, Peter never quite did. But in tracing their invincible history Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca's To Have And To Hold nails their dynamic - - -and makes me believe in the social anomaly of their union more than Douglas Sirk can: headstrong movie star who can have anyone she wants marrying her nerdy high school science teacher childhood friend. I've re-read this too many times to count and not only does it still get all swoony but it still leaves no shred of doubt that the title would have been better off had Joe Quesada not put the marriage asunder.
Fraction milks everything J.Michael Straczynski believed in one last time here and gives it throb. And the throb will have to do until the next status quo. "I'll be back," Peter tells himself as he says goodbye to Mary Jane in one of many flashback sequences. "I swear. For you, I'll always be back." Leaving is chickenshit and staying takes guts. Superhero guts.
Rob Sheffield and his wife Renee in Love Is A Mixtape had the same dynamic as Peter and Mary Jane. Like me and like Peter, Sheffield's a semi-reformed bedroom shut-in prone to backslide, too. And Renee was the girl whose lust for life lured and kept him out of it. Tornado and her wallflower. It's the same . . . no, it's the only dynamic I can aspire to.
"Girls take up a lot of room. I had a lot of room for this one." - Rob Sheffield (Love Is A Mixtape)
" . . .there was nothing about her that promised to be easy but I couldn't keep away . . maybe that's why she fascinated me so much,I couldn't explain her, that girl confused me to the core . . ." (Peter Parker on Mary Jane Watson, Sensational Spiderman Annual 1:To Have And To Hold)
Rob saw Renee from a distance. That's how it almost always starts. With a sighting and the minutest tic that means nothing to anybody else but is the world to you and throws your chemistries slightly out of whack right before matters get worse. "The bartender put on Big Star's Radio City. Renee was the only one who perked up." Not to say that liking the same music foolproofs a relationship or that it should matter, really, but even the littlest overlap tends to fuel-inject it. And it isn't as hell on the mixtapes.
"I don't know what your type is. I don’t know what your deal is. I don't even know if you have a boyfriend. I know I like you and I want to be in your life, that's it, and if you have any room for a boyfriend, I would like to be your boyfriend, and if you don't have any room, I would like to be your friend. Any room you have for me in your life is great. If you would like me to start out in one room and move to another, I could do that." - Rob to Renee
Rob and Renee had more than a little overlap. They had the same favorite band (Pavement) , the same favorite Meat Puppets album and the same favorite songs as kids (Andy Gibb's I Just Wanna Be Your Everything). And they constantly spoke their love through the mixtapes they made for each other during their brief 5 year marriage. Love Is A Mixtape is like some wish-fulfillment fantasy for me, if only for that part. But, unlike Peter and Mary Jane, Rob and Renee are real people. And it's no secret that halfway through, Renee dies of a pulmonary embolism.
Love Is A Mixtape is a long goodbye that hurts terrible bad near the end with a hurt that gets sticky and gains weight long after. Like To Have And To Hold, it's all about the gravities of the past, how you cling to it for oxygen, how you sometimes have to discard it for diesel. But as you reel from the wallop of its immense sadness, it's easy to overlook the positivity it exudes. Five years, five days,five minutes,who cares. True love found Rob and Renee in the end , like Daniel Johnston predicted, and 'til death did they part, singing songs until the last last minute. I find that . . .well, beautiful. And not a little comforting. Cynicism is society's cop-out. It's too easy. And you're no less lost anyway. "I'm scared . . . " Renee tells Rob the first night they come together and aren't we all? Love Is A Mixtape doesn't let you off the hook, it raises the stakes and makes it scarier. I used to snicker at exes and their beloved chick flicks. But I sort of get them now when I re-read this and it restores my perhaps naive faith in the second (third?fourth?) coming of a perhaps false god: the tornado that loves you and the perfect mixtape you can' wait to make for her.
Daniel Faraday called it a constant. Daniel Faraday being the jittery physicist from Lost. And the reason he was so jittery may well be Desmond, who’s about to go back in time, and run the risk of getting lost in it. Unless, of course, he has a constant, a recurring event perhaps, or better yet a recurring person to whom he had an emotional attachment of such ferocity it acts as hook, as coordinate, as way back. In Terry Gillam’s grandiose remake, Twelve Monkeys, her name was Kathryn Reilly, but in Chris Marker’s original La Jetee (The Pier) from 1962, she had no name, but the woman Helene Chatelain played was quite possibly the first constant. And consequently, my top pick for science-fiction cinema siren.
My picks are highly subjective, of course. Some you can see coming, because how can you not slot Jane Fonda’s Barbarella in for quintessence, not to mention Sigourney Weaver’s entire run as Ripley in the Alien quadrilogy for will to power, and the eponymous troika of superwomen from The Heroic Trio played by Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, for sheer resplendence? All draw from my own tastes in women and from how high I regard the work said women appear in, guided by how a siren is defined by her specific effect on men. And Chatelain only seems like an outlier choice until we start going by how one dictionary definition boils that effect down to “beguiling”. La Jetee may well be the greatest science fiction film full stop and Chatelain’s crucial function may have been to keep the time-travelling soldier from going insane. But that’s only if you don’t count the burning love that drove him to return to the past and save the future again and again and again as a sort of insanity, too. It’s the same effect Kate Winslet’s Clementine has on Jim Carrey in Michel Gondry’s (and Charlie Kaufman’s) mesmerizing grafting of Philip K. Dick with Alain Resnais, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that is, the desire to repeatedly go through any strait no matter how dire with someone. Both feature, too, a man whose destiny is ultimately shaped by a woman. No other definition of beguilement holds a candle.
And this is really the prevailing dynamic for most of the more obvious choices, even Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, undisputedly the first siren of science-fiction cinema, who did sooth the savage beast. Despite the dominance of the male hormone in science-fiction and despite that dominance verging on obsolescence, the presence of a woman in a piece of science-fiction cinema can still be wonderfully disruptive. Grace Park’s feisty engineer Boomer in Ronald Moore’s gritty re-jig of Battlestar Galactica had several men wriggling under her thumb. Megumi Hayashibara’s Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel from The Avengers and Karen Gillen’s Amelia Pond from the last two seasons of Doctor Who all had a habit of constantly upstaging the men they were supposed to be mere foils to, and those men would include a bounty hunter, a crack secret agent and a Time Lord, respectively. And no amount of new age gibberish would’ve sold Neo into entering The Matrix had Trinity been any less alluring.
Trinity, of course, is a mash-up built from parts of Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux and Molly from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Selina Kyle from the Batman comics and Irma Vep from Louis Feuillade’s epic proto-noir serial Les Vampires. But she's also the embodiment of that other genre’s archetype. The femme fatale of noir is “a mysterious alluring woman who leads men into dangerous situations”. And when Trinity goes acrobat all over those cops and agents and buildings at the start of The Matrix, like a two-gun fetish-wear wu xia angel of doom, your first impulse may be a hormonal swoon, but the next and more fatal one, is to follow her wherever she leads.
1. Helene Chatelain as The Woman from La Jetee (Chris Marker): She had no name, she said nothing, but not only was she a time traveler’s object of desire but eventually the shaper of his destiny, which is essentially what all women are.
2. Megumi Hayashibara as Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop (Shinichiro Watanabe): She’s a cartoon, deal with it. And futuristic bounty hunters don’t come any spunkier or sexier.
3. Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel from The Avengers (Brian Clemens): The proto-Scully no less. First and fairer. Sorry Gillian, but we are talking about the only woman James Bond saw fit to marry.
4. Karen Gillen as Amelia Pond from Doctor Who (Series 5-6) (Steven Moffatt): No companion of the Doctor made me swoon so bad it broke my heart the way Amy did.
5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from Alien (Ridley Scott): Not just for the fact that she fought the eponymous nasty in nothing but her underwear but I’d be lying if I said that had no bearing.
6. Kate Winslet as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry): The damaged girlfriend we all know and we all would probably go through recurring cycles of relationship hell. even in a future where romantic bliss was within reach.
7. Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung as the Heroic Trio from The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To) : The first ladies of HK cinema together in one film as wu xia superheroes saving a pulpy HK of the future. It had me at “the first ladies of HK cinema in one film”.
8. Jane Fonda as Barbarella from Barbarella (Roger Vadim): Nobody outside of the Europeans could touch Jane Fonda in the 60s. Strap her into a skimpy superhero costume and it’s game over.
9. Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers): The sci-fic/noir mashup that is cyberpunk doesn’t have a deep bench in terms of cinema but Trinity is hands down its sovereign femme fatale.
10. Grace Park as Boomer from Battlestar Galactica (Ronald Moore): Excuse the gushing but she did tend to light up the darkest, nastiest longform sci-fic series so far. That has got to count.
11. Elsa Lanchester as The Bride from The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale): The first science-fiction cinema siren, no less. Stupid to omit lest you want her “husband” on your case.
*originally published in Vault