NOVEMBER 14, 2014
THE FIRST DEAD BODY I ever saw belonged to Steve Bohler, an acquaintance from my freshman dorm at NYU who jumped to his death inside of Bobst Library in October of 2003. I was walking on West Fourth Street with my neighbor who was rattling off his 30-year plan for ascending to the presidency of the United States when we came upon a crowd gathered around the entrance to the library. We stood on the north side of the street, preferring not join the group but listening intently as passersby revealed clues as to what had transpired inside. A gurney surrounded by EMTs soon emerged, the face of the young man on it obscured by a protective, foam headpiece. At the time, I did not know that it was Steve’s body, nor did I know that he was dead. For years I would recall that gurney and think of a lifeless body sprawled on the library’s lobby floor.
These images, both real and imagined, had largely disappeared from my mind as I got older, placing that first glimpse of death in an archive in the recesses of my mind while I went about the more pressing business of becoming an adult. It was not until 2014 as I was watching Hide Your Smiling Faces, a film partly inspired by the events of 2003, that the images and memories of Steve’s death and its unquiet aftermath reemerged. Hide Your Smiling Faces follows the experiences of two adolescent brothers, Eric and Tommy, and several of their peers during the summer that a young boy named Ian mysteriously falls to his death. Though the age of the boys in the film makes it tempting to call this a coming-of-age film, the unsettling lack of resolution or solace found by its main characters makes the designation inadequate. It is instead a coming-awake film, a chronicle of the days before and after a cruelly ambiguous encounter with death. It is directed by my former classmate and friend Daniel Patrick Carbone, and I reached out to him to discuss the film in the late summer of 2014.
Shot in Carbone’s native New Jersey against the backdrop of the state’s underappreciated forests, Faces is a film whose themes speak more through natural sounds and silences than with scripted words. The soundtrack by Robert Donne, formerly of the ambient-rock band Labradford, relies on a combination of acoustic and electronic instruments and eschews traditional scoring in favor of aural interjections that complement the sounds that emerge from the landscape. Carbone consulted the child actors in the film extensively for feedback on the authenticity of their lines and reactions to one another, often resulting in unresolved conversations when the boys determined that they would not respond to certain remarks at all. It is the series of tense moments in which feelings go unexpressed and questions go unanswered that propel the film forward, more than a traditional plot. Carbone demonstrates commendable restraint by refusing to have his child characters speak in either compelling platitudes or in hyper-insightful reflections. It is through this restraint and the tension created by silence that the film bears remarkable witness to children in mourning.
I did not connect the thematic elements of the film to Steve’s death until I saw the shot of Ian’s body sprawled below a bridge, lying next to a slow-running stream and among impossibly lush trees. Somehow, it was more lifeless underneath the heartbeat of a thriving forest. I had thought of Carbone in the context of our early undergraduate friendship, but I quickly recalled that he had been one of Steve’s two roommates as soon as the body appeared on screen. What started for me as a dark but not especially familiar film suddenly took the shape of a quieted and beautified retelling of a real experience from my early adulthood. Though the aftermath of Steve’s death was characterized by hysterical tears and chaos, the quiet but sometimes violent grappling with death was intimately familiar.
With the exception of a few bicycles and bedroom accouterments that betray the film’s firm footing in the last 30 years, Faces pulls off what many films attempt and fail: it takes place in no particular time or place. The rural environment in which the boys navigate Ian’s death is one of empty roads and dense forests where they serve as de facto, and sometimes reluctant, kings. The sharpness and saturation of the original footage was corrected to make an earthy color palette consistent across the film — to look “like an old photograph,” according to Carbone. The bridge from which Ian falls to his death exists similarly outside of time, its soaring, interior caverns more at home in fairy tales than the American Northeast. The film is eerily free of any cultural indicators that might relieve viewers from having to witness the raw and painful business of accelerated growing up.
And just as Steve’s death was debated as a possible accident and a possible suicide, Ian’s fall in Faces remains ambiguous and consequently fraught. At one point Tommy asks his brother, “Do you think he jumped?” to which Eric replies in what could be read as either denial or fraternal protection, “Who said he jumped?” Eric then describes a hypothetical fall that resulted from childish play, but his edgy and destructive emotions throughout the film suggest his doubts that this was an accident. The boys in the story wrestle with the meaning of Ian’s death by literally wrestling, impromptu matches that sometimes escalate well beyond childish play. Though dialogue in Faces is minimal, it is the ambiguity of Ian’s death that underlies much of the strained conversations, during which the boys consider suicide, some with curiosity and others with worrying preoccupation. At one point, Eric is on the phone with his friend Tristan who confides, “I just don’t want to be here anymore, you know. No one likes me here.” He says this amid the sound of the metallic clicks of a handgun, characteristic of the prolonged silences punctuated by tiny sounds that allude to imminent death throughout the film. Death lingers at the periphery in the form of discovered animal corpses and nerve-wracking gunplay. It is this lingering without resolution that made the film so unmistakably related to Steve’s death, to me, as I watched.
For the duration of the film, I attached the characters and places therein to memories of my first semester at NYU, when a dormitory full of teenagers encountered death, many for the first time. The volatile and attention-seeking Tristan was my female roommate, the only known girl to have made out with Steve in those first several weeks of freshman year. This status compelled her to melodrama and theatrics that were a source of both my annoyance and my pity that fall. The younger brother, Tommy, was the other roommate of Steve and Carbone whose shell shock was mirrored by the boy on screen. The bridge from which Ian falls to his death was Bobst Library, an imposing and seemingly permanent edifice that I will forever associate with a death out of time rather than with timeless works of literature.
As I injected the film with real moments from my first encounter with death, I was only partly conscious of the fact that I was doing precisely what I had resented in the aftermath of Steve’s death: a labored performance of grief and a forced attachment to the tragedy by many of my peers. When the film was over, I explained to my date how it had clearly been informed by the death of Steve. I feigned a subtle disorientation as I recalled the memory and imagined for his/her behalf the characters and places out loud. I felt that it was more artful than mere gossip when performed in response to a film screening.
After Steve died, many of the freshmen in our dorm began enacting their grief in highly visible and seemingly competitive ways. My roommate and two of her friends got “SB” tattooed on their bodies in the same shape as these initials appear atop the manhole covers in New York City, apparently a reference to an inside joke they had shared with Steve in those first weeks at NYU. I watched girls from Steve’s floor sullenly eat in the dining hall, glancing about in search of eye contact by which they might signal their suffering. I thought of the largely unsupervised group of boys as representative of NYU freshmen, a symbolic gang of lost children set free in the wilderness to self-destruct. When Rolling Stone ran a story called, “The Lost Freshman,” many who were interviewed grew angry when their quotes received what they perceived as too little real estate for their alleged significance in Steve’s life. I spent the semester decidedly detached (possibly even smugly so) from the excessive grieving over a young man who I felt belonged so much more to his family and the place from which he came six weeks prior than to New York or to any of us.
I had not spoken to Carbone in seven years when I reached out to ask if the film was inspired by Steve’s death. It was an impulsive late-night decision that I might not have made in the clarity of day. But the phrase “disfigured memory” had come to mind in another writing project and stood in stark contrast to the beautified memory that I had experienced in Faces. In some way, I saw asking about the connection to Steve as a way to mitigate the embarrassment I felt taking ownership of a tragedy to which I was not closely associated. But bringing up Steve at all, when I had the option of simply saying nothing, was also a way of making myself visible, of attaching myself to the incident by posturing detachment. Despite 11 years passing, it was the same desire to objectively observe and judge tragedy and its component parts that I had entertained at 18.
I lived four floors above the boys that year and had had only two conversations with Steve. One was about the merits of analog pornography and the other was his impromptu tour of the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony catalog when he learned that I only knew “Tha Crossroads.” The rest of my memories of him are snapshots of a likable stoner whose first impression did little justice to his sensitivity and depth. And even my impressions of his depth and sensitivity might not be informed by my own memories; maybe they were formed by the barrage of media profiles that followed “suicide season” at NYU.
In the hours that followed my message to Carbone, it felt suddenly untoward to ask a man I hadn’t spoken to in years to dredge up his feelings about his friend’s death. But when I met with Carbone to discuss the film, he kindly reassured me that he had made the film and fully expected questions about its inspiration.
I learned throughout our conversation that I was partly correct to associate Steve’s death with the film but that there had also been a much deeper well of resource material. There had been other deaths and reflections on brotherhood that I had not detected. My character assignments were almost entirely off base, though the “structure as implement of destruction” had some truth to it. I made self-deprecating remarks about the self-centeredness of watching Faces in the way that I had, embodying the cliché that everyone thinks of other people as extras in the movie of his/her own life. But Carbone was quick to forgive and even encourage the tendency to engage with such stories by projecting our own experiences onto them. “People are more likely to engage with [the film] if the experience is left more open-ended,” he said. Elaborating on the conspicuous absence of girls from the story and the apparent failure of authorities to investigate the mysterious death, Carbone noted, “A movie about real events is historical, but these are new stories.” It was as the lack of details emerged that the position of the movie outside of any context but a death in the summer became all the more evident.
The questions about artistic authority and license became irrelevant quickly, as Carbone listed the many meanings that had been read out of a film whose place and meaning were left intentionally out of any particular context so that viewers might be able to engage with it. Some viewed it as a reflection on personal depression rather than on an encounter with death. People as far off as Poland and the UAE had recognized the forests of New Jersey as their own childhood kingdoms. Older people saw the 1950s in the film, while kids today saw their own lives reflected, just in an alternate reality lacking cell phones. For mothers of boys, it was a horror film more than anything else. Of the many hypotheses he heard, Carbone noted that only one critic, who saw the film as finger-wagging at the nihilism of youth, was explicitly incorrect. He explained, “I don’t tell people what exactly it’s about or what it’s supposed to mean, that’s when symbolism stops doing what it’s meant to.”
In an attempt to salvage my direction toward questions about ownership of public tragedy, I brought up the competitive suffering in the weeks after Steve’s death. They were expressions of grief that I had explicitly defined myself against, dismissing even my own sadness by recalling that this was something that belonged to Steve’s family and friends and not to me. It was an accident of six weeks and a few degrees of latitude and longitude that he was ever with us at all. And while Carbone admitted to some similar resentment at the “emotional greed” of such posturing, he was ultimately forgiving of that too. He said, “Eventually, you can only understand it by making it about yourself because you just don’t possibly know how to truly empathize.”
Toward the end of our conversation, we talked about the absence of reassuring or grounded adult characters in the film. Carbone said, “You don’t get any better at grieving as you get older. That’s not a condemnation of how adults grieve, but they’re no better at it than children.” I felt permission to see what I needed to see: unsupervised children in a wild place who knew better how to fight than to feel — children who had lost a member of their tribe, a fellow traveler on the early road to adulthood, during the brief time we shared space and self. We didn’t have to earn our devastation at his death by our proximity to it.
I had wanted to build an accurate map of tragic ownership that would lead me to the conclusion that I was not entitled then and am not entitled now to any attachment to either the true story of the boy who fell or to the film that would draw inspiration from it. But the deep wilderness and the grand bridge that appears to expand deep into the forest on either side are not so easily mapped. There are no clear paths in or out of this wilderness or the structure that holds dominion over it. There are no sides from which to escape it entirely, and there is no center to be near to that provides certainty that you’ve earned its embrace.