I’d read Neil Gaiman’s short story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” a long time ago now, back in 2006 when it had been published in Fragile Things. It’s hard for me to remember what I felt when I read that story, except to say that it had that usual Gaiman “otherworldly” feel to it, and it matched a similar 1970s nostalgia that existed in a few other stories within that particular collection, and others. Amanda Palmer once said, with regards to art and Neil Gaiman’s work in his The Ocean at the End of the Lane – which I will get back to later — that there is a blender with regards to a creator’s work and life experiences, and that one can tell that Neil Gaiman set this metaphorical blender a little lower than usual. It’s no new thing for Neil Gaiman, and definitely not something he himself hasn’t mentioned in the introductory pages of his collections, where he writes about the circumstances, and sometimes even the inspirations that led to the creation of his short stories, and poetry.
The one striking thing about this story, which I was reminded of, after I reread it having watched the film adaptation, was the poem that the extraterrestrial girl Triolet told Enn: a living, mnemonic being, like her, a pattern, or an algorithm, or a memory of an entire race. She, and her words, were essentially an idea that could be welcomed, or quarantined as contagion. Triolet whispers this, for lack of a better term, syllabic language to Enn but she doesn’t have the opportunity to finish telling him the rest of the poem. In the end, Enn tells the reader — thirty years later — that it changed him, that night, but for the life of him he can’t properly remember the poem, never mind even try to repeat what he heard. It becomes a moment in time that leaves its mark, and that he will never get back.
These are the seeds, or, if you prefer, the beginnings of the viral infection, leading to the film adaptation of How to Talk to Girls at Parties. I’ll be honest, it had been a while since I read the short story, and I didn’t think much of the news: neither really liking, nor hating it. And then, at one point, one of the first international trailers — if not the first trailer — came out, and to this day I can’t remember finding it, or recall if it even existed. I’ve even tried to track it down, but each trailer iteration just can’t recapture that ephemeral feeling, like music you hear from a dream that you do not have the language, or the skill to emulate: much like Enn failing to recall the unique language of the poem that Triolet passed on to him, incomplete, and phantasmagorical.
The closest I can describe the impression I got from the preview of John Cameron Mitchell’s film can be derived from two social media posts I made. The first was a comment I wrote on a trailer from Neil Gaiman’s author profile back on April 2, 2018 where I stated, with regards to meeting the film’s female protagonist — Zan, as opposed to the short story’s Triolet — that “I am picturing DC’s Starfire — the original one — meeting Ziggy Stardust, British rock, and The World’s End with awkward weird attempts at adolescent love” while later, on June 5, 2018, in what almost felt like a lifetime later on the Toronto After Dark Film Festival’s profile I wrote “It looks like Ziggy Stardust meeting Earth Girls are Easy with The World’s End, and some Doctor Who for good measure.” I think both of these descriptions are pretty apt in describing the resonance of the film’s spirit for me, and when I finally did watch it, it lived up to those feelings, and more. From here on in, while it might be futile, I will attempt to prevent the spread of the viral memetic agents known as Spoilers.
Mitchell, along with co-screenwriter Philipa Goslett, adapted Neil Gaiman’s original story in some interesting ways. While the story is set in the 1970s, the film goes as far as to state that it takes place in 1977, and set specifically in and around the punk subculture. Enn and Vic are still central characters in this version of the narrative, but they have a third friend — John — who, arguably, unlike the character of Wybie in the stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (which is a cruel name for an added character when you think about it), is actually refreshing in that he focuses particularly on the music scene, and is the more grounded, curious of the three who doesn’t actually fall in love with any aliens.
In fact, all three boys fit into the punk subculture, making and giving out zines, while also possessing musical aspirations of their own. Enn himself creates a cartoon comic strip called Virys Boy for their punk zine Virys in which the character combats authoritarian and fascist figures by spreading himself into and “infecting” them with the quality of “punk” in the form of anarchy and freedom: an admittedly shaky metaphor for perhaps subverting the tools of an established social order that simply “consumes” in order to make something new or, rather, in Enn’s words, something akin to “freedom.”
On the other side of the equation is Zan and the Six Colonies. The Colonies are a collective of extraterrestrial life of differing design, and makeup that can manifest into different forms of their choosing. Sometimes they have been stars, other times viruses, and in their current tour of Earth — in Croydon, London — they have become human. Once, a long time ago, these Colonies were other species that consumed and nearly wiped out their worlds, and themselves. Since that time, they have adapted and been able to incarnate into different forms, consuming one another so as to control their population rate, and travel the universe. They are each ruled, and guided by six Parent-Teachers — with PT First as seemingly their originator, leader, “curator,” and the one that will consume themselves, but not before they devour the other PTs and those PTs eat the rest of their children. Essentially, from what is understood, they have evolved to a point where there is no new life among them. Even as an interconnected and cooperative whole — taking the body politic literally — they have become stagnant, and nearing the end of their overall personal variations. From what is gathered, they are all collectively — even though in separate variations — a dying species.
As with the short story, the human friends accidentally come across the Colonies in their current home in an area of townhouses. Despite the gritty exterior of the house itself, the Colonies through their members are depicted to have changed the interior into something not unlike an experimental performance where the line is blurred between audience and actors, or art studio space: a kind of laissez-faire party with what would look like, to humans, a performance art or “Hippie commune,” or cult situation. One Colony, through its different members, constantly performs acrobatics and form castells. Some create music that no other humans have heard. And others, like the Stellas, seek to … interact intimately with native lifeforms to create more physical forms for themselves. Each one of them seems to have their symbols and associated colours, in a diagram not unlike a Kabbalistic Tree of Life in a humanoid form: presumably Spirit (white), Mind (purple), Voice (blue), Will (yellow), Sex (orange), and Strength (red).
The physical performer Colony is Strength, the Stellas are obviously Sex, “the Fourth Colony” led by PT Waldo and containing Zan herself are Will, the Colony of singers are Voice, the Colony of the Mind that seems to mainly observe, analyze, and criticize are led by PT Wain with his offspring Wainswain as a Second — presumably second born — and Spirit might be representative of PT First and their Colony as they are the original power that made all this possible. Each of them have their own rooms in the old house as symbolized by the different coloured windows on the outside where they undertake their activities, and interact. But it becomes very clear in what seem to be very exaggerated, physical performances and observations that something is lacking in them, something that first seems to be their alien natures, and perhaps proves to be something more. Maybe this is the reason they are undertaking their final manifestations in the setting of this film.
Mitchell and Goslett’s creative dynamics seem to be extrapolated from the idea of the poem as a memetic virus from Neil Gaiman’s short story, but expanded into six advanced, interconnected traveling species. It is also possible to assume that they reproduce asexually, or through their own current bodily incarnation with the help of another species’ genetics. However, the only other indication of this seems to be through the Stellas — that represent Sex — and it is made clear that they operate and interact with their environments differently than the other five. It is also possible that the replication is just that: copying. Nothing new is being made. There are also fewer new offspring, and the rest simply incarnate into different forms from the whole. However, one thing is certain: that in the narrative of this film adaptation, the three human boys or “locals” as these traveling beings tend to call them, challenge their status quo: and it is a two-way streak.
John himself observes, and attempts later to figure out what music the Voice Colony is making: as he doesn’t understand that they aren’t human. Vic, like his counterpart in Neil Gaiman’s story, attempts to engage one of the Stellas in sex, but unlike the story where there had been only one Stella who gains the eyes of an “angry universe” when he leaves her in terror of realizing she may not be human, Vic actually flees a larger number of them, and takes Enn and John with him. But it is Enn, in Mitchell and Goslett’s film that has a very different fate from that of his short story counterpart, especially as it’s Zan and not Tripolett — who doesn’t exist in the film — with which he interacts.
The dynamic here is fascinating. Zan, played by Elle Fanning, subverts the Manic Pixie Girl stereotype. While she is willful and energetic, as well as rebellious, she has very eccentric and weird personality quirks. The viewer can tell by the way she enunciates her words, moves, and even says specific things that she may not be entirely human: or used to be being so for the 48-hour period the Colonies are staying on their last sojourn. She isn’t used to human bodily functions, and seems to be actually trying to reconcile them with other movements and actions that she used to possess in her other forms. But you can see her taking in all of her surroundings, wanting to experience them first-hand beyond a travel plan.
Zan resembles the original Stella from Neil Gaiman’s short story with her blonde hair, but she’s actually the second, and last, girl Enn talks with in the film: and unlike the story, she follows him out when Vic drags him away. In addition, she actually has some of Wain’s Wain’s words from the short story as well as those of the unnamed second girl Enn meets in the short story with regards to their observations of Earth, incarnating, and Parent-Teachers. Overall, however, Zan wants something beyond order, and observation. She wants something more than just individuality as a noun. She wants to make a verb.
Enn is the son of a single mother. His father, a jazz musician, left them a long time ago, and he hates his mother dating other people. At the same time, Enn seems to have strange dreams that have the Six Colonies figure into them in their energy-based configurations, with images of organisms infiltrating, or injecting parts of themselves into other microscopic organisms. He also seems to hear the sound and music around these beings while he sleeps: and this is before he and his friends find the Colonies, inadvertently, while lost in their attempt to get to an after-party.
Punk, however, really figures into the interaction between Zan and Enn. Enn seems to define punk as a verb, when he sees Zan, after rebelling against her PT Waldo, cutting her yellow dress. Her line “Do punk to me,” is one of the most direct, and powerful lines in the whole film with its obvious connotations. It takes her a bit to realize that Enn is a “local,” while it takes Enn far longer to understand that Zan … is not.
In my Internet readings around the film, there is a criticism that How to Talk to Girls at Parties fails in its political message. I realized, after a time, that what this meant was that it is supposed to be representative of the idea of anarchy, and rebelling against authority, and stagnation. However, I don’t agree with that. I don’t think it is a political film. I do believe, as does Mitchell, that is this a love story between two young people from — literally — different worlds, who in the two days they get to know each other, change each other’s lives forever. However, the punk subculture does figure into this story a great deal.
Enn, in particular, explains how he and his friends undertake punk to Zan after he takes her home from what he thinks is a party: or a birthday party, from Zan’s perspective, for their new forms. He tells her that he and his friends go to the sewer pipes, and pick the tomatoes that grow there — as their seeds cannot be broken down in a human digestive tract — and sell them for money to photocopy their zine Virys. In a way, what he is saying is that they subvert the capitalist system — the social order of mindless consumption — by taking advantage of its natural cycle to cheat it, and gain access to the means to disseminate works to protest it. Zan herself seems both horrified and impressed by this idea of “Dancing, free trade, duplication.” Unknowingly, Enn is saying all the things that Zan herself is seeking while not possessing the words to express it.
This actually reminds me of what I read about FV Disko in 1980s Slovenia, where artists took the means of what was once government production — through access to photocopiers — and created zines to protest communism or their government at the time. FV Disko and other socio-artistic movements like it were also interested in experimental performance and theatre: much like how the Colonies are depicted in the film. In addition, Enn’s methodology of paying for copying is reminiscent of the former Torontonian bike repairer and thief Igor Kenk’s idea that one can recycle anything from junk — instead of wasting resources to create something new and disposable: as it is depicted, in more detail in Richard Poplak and Nick Marinkovich’s comics novel Kenk: A Graphic Novel. Kenk himself, who would repair, then gain stolen bicycles, and sell them again, to often be repaired by him once more, grew up in Slovenia where FV Disko had been prevalent with its collage zines and it may have influenced his own philosophies.
Then there is the figure of Boadicea: the owner of the punk club where the three boys, and later Zan and even some of her fellow children from the Colonies, hang out. Her character, played by Nicole Kidman, resembles a Ziggy Stardust and, really, Davie Bowie’s Jareth with her makeup and wig. While on the surface, she is a jaded, cranky, often impatient woman she has been in the punk scene for quite a while, and has practically heard it all. She is bitter at being forgotten by those she has musically fostered, or been with, but she is quick to take an opportunity when presented with it.
Zan identifies her as the “Punk-PT”: something of a den mother with a great deal of intuition. Boadicea, for her part, takes a liking to Zan and essentially tells her that punk is about revolution, and the destruction of the old order. Boadicea takes her name from the Celtic Queen whose daughters had been violated by Romans, and raised a long-time rebellion against their Empire. According to her namesake, she was the first “punk.” And Boadicea channels her a few times in leading a punk gang against the Colonies. She uses speakers to overpower the sonic attack of the Voice Colony, and more: actually resists the natural pheromones of the Stellas, or the Sex Colony. Boadicea tells Enn, earlier, that she had herpes and quite a few abortions: perhaps rendering her greatly resistant to the Stellas. If Enn’s strange metaphor about the remnants of viruses holds up, and you expand it into fragments of poetry or music, then Boadicea has “heard” it all before: while actually influencing the Stellas to “evolve or die” after a talk with the PT Stella. She also literally provides the stage for Enn and Zan to sing … and create something entirely new in their rebellion.
And bodies and bodily functions are a major theme of this film, and punk. After all, punk is also associated with grunge. The film goes out of its way to depict bodily functions at key times: such as when Zan and Enn have their first attempt at a kiss, and she accidentally vomits on his face, and when she is attempting to use the restroom for the first time in her current existence. There is something intimate, physically honest, and transgressive for a being like Zan to do these things: to bond with a human perhaps in a way she might have done in another form, eat human food, and eliminate like one.
So these elements do exist, and they are not mutually exclusive. In the grit and dirt of the beats of the human music depicted in the film, there is something primal, and nostalgic. It is messy, and chaotic, but there is an order at times with small montages of quiet acts, a whirlwind of experiences, and painful moments of clarity. After a time, in an amazingly depicted psychedelic and musical scene on a stage of a punk club Enn and Zan sing together, and Enn’s DNA — like a virus — enters into Zan, and actually impregnates her. It is a confusing experience for the both of them. Enn infects Zan with his own material, and she changes him with hers as they sing together, one backing up the other, until this moment occurs. It’s like the poem of the short story writ, incomplete, between two people.
This act fills them with both understanding, and its opposite. Enn realizes that Zan isn’t human, but not before ignoring everything she is trying to tell him. Zan gets angry at Enn, and her Colony, and continues to rebel — even kissing someone else at the rave they performed at — and hurting Enn. It’s only moments after she realizes she’s gotten lost, and painfully terrified in the pandemonium of the crowd at the club, and tries to look for Enn: only to be told by the Colonies that she is with child now.
I don’t think I will spoil this any further, except to say that both Enn and Zan have to make some poignant choices that just … resonate. It’s young love, and growing, and music, and old townhouses, and clubs, and art, and learning, and misunderstanding, and hurting, and loss, but also the chance for something totally new to come out of all of it.
And the film even has, if you want to reference Blade Runner, its unicorn moment with Enn. Not only has Enn had visions about the Six Colonies, before even meeting them, there may be hints that he is … no ordinary human. Not only does he hear the music before his friends that brings them to the Colonies’ home, or somehow intuitively and unconsciously understand how to procreate with Zan through his Virys Boy strips, his focus on how adapting to viruses may have eventually led bacteria to evolve towards humanity, when Wainswain even asks him “Weren’t you a virus the last time?” without knowing he is a local, and he isn’t affected by PT First incapacitating the other humans there is the matter of Enn’s father.
The audience never meets Enn’s father, who left before the film’s story began. It isn’t so much that he has left per se, it’s more something that Enn says towards the end of the film. While the film has its share of direct line that can hit you straight in the heart, Enn’s monologue where he confronts the Parent-Teachers about eating their young, and Zan’s future with their offspring is as follows: “Now we may have cocked this planet up royally, but at least we’re fucking alive! We like to eat, we like to shit, we like to dance! We like to fall in love. And we try and fix what our parents fucked up. But you! What kind of parents are you? I mean even the most pathetic poseur of a punk who’ll end his days wanking on the wall of his padded tree house, at least he had a dad who’d rather leave him in a ditch than stick around and eat him alive!”
Of course, this can be read at least two ways. The audience is aware of the fact that Enn’s father was a political Left-leaning jazz musician that didn’t release any of his music because he didn’t want to “sell out” and he left when Enn was nine. But you have to figure: is it possible that a member of the Colonies, or something similar could have come to Earth and manifested before as a virus that a bacterium had adapted to, and became Enn’s father or Enn … or perhaps another human like Enn’s father: who left.
I’m of two minds there. First, many of the factors listed above could be attributed to how Zan altered Enn, or perhaps Enn is “sensitive” as an artist: something he says to Zan when she tells the Colonies that he is special for resisting PT First’s power. Certainly, Enn’s own line about humans still carrying the remnants of viruses inside of them could explain how he had been able to reproduce with Zan at all: in a manner that effectively can make her a Parent-Teacher in her own right. There is something more poignant about it being Zan’s interaction with a human, a local, that changes this particular social order. On the other hand, Enn having similar DNA to the Colonies can explain how this reproduction happened, how he can resist PT First’s neutralizing signal, and — more importantly — how he has been having all of those dreams about them. I can really take it one way, or another myself.
It is also interesting to note that, in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, there is the presence of ancient, powerful beings in humanoid form known as the Hempstocks: that while the women stay in one place, the men tend to roam, and intermingle with humans. The Hempstocks know, and have been a great deal of sentient life throughout the cosmos themselves: speaking the perfect “language of shaping” in a way that is reminiscent of Triolet talking to Enn in the short story. And the protagonist at the end of that novel had a piece of another world inside him as well: one that changed him creatively forever, as Enn himself ultimately is. And poetry in the form of musical lyrics created mutually by Zan and Enn, create what can become the future. Perhaps Mitchell and Goslett gained more inspiration from Neil Gaiman than simply looking at his formative punk background during the time of the 1970s: when he himself was in a band, as well as his Sandman presence in 1992. Either way, it is tempting to link this film to a Gaiman fictional shared universe: if such a thing arguably exists.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties will never be a blockbuster, and it does have some issues. It can seem disjointed, the gaudily CGI colourful gems and associated effects representing the Colonies feels heavy-handed — even if they are repetitive and “rhyme” with the themes of the film much like an actual triolet stanza poem would function in cinematic form — and perhaps it’s not as focused in a political message or subcultural scene as some might like. But it is a beautiful, abstract film that delights in mood whiplash, and a subtle display of dynamics. And it has lines that hit, and hit hard: especially after some quieter, more meaningful moments.
Somewhere between the Will and the Voice in the system making up the Colonies is an empty place: where love goes, where it doesn’t always survive the flesh, in a place that needs a Heart. It can be a sad place, a beautiful place, a place that hurts when the weird and wonderful ends. But it can also keep the other places going, and cycling, and talking, and interacting between them. It can keep the whole thing living. So while How to Talk to Girls at Parties may never be a popular film, and it doesn’t have the same understated elegance of Neil Gaiman’s short story, I feel it will be an excellent cult classic, one almost literally with heart: a small cinematic poem: a strain of story that will remain inside of me like the remnants of a nostalgic virus in my code, the echoes of a half-forgotten song, or the memories of a brief instant in time, and another life.