Bones and All (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2022)
It Isn’t True Until It Ends
Chaos and peace can coexist when there’s no end in sight, but the pressure to rush off to one makes the two enemies.
By Davis Dunham
Thomas Mallon’s December 12th article for The New Yorker, “Finding My Way—and Staying Alive—During the AIDS Crisis,” takes approximately 41 minutes to read. I split these minutes, about 30 before and 11 after, around watching Bones and All, Luca Guadagnino’s new two-hour and 11-minute film. Altogether, I consumed years’ worth of stories over the course of an evening.
In life, there can be quite serendipitous moments. I can think of three that have happened to me in the past year: running into a friend from summer camp at a dog cafe in the Upper West Side, discovering a friend of a friend and I both play cribbage (a card game favored mostly in nursing homes), and, one time, pressing play on an album when I left work to have it finish exactly as I put the key in the lock of my apartment.
As I sat in the theater watching Bones and All, the feeling slowly began to creep over me that I was experiencing something similar. Highlights from Thomas Mallon’s article played in my head as scenes from the movie went by, and there seemed to be some kind of concurrence. Not agreement—more similar to the feeling when two people who occupy wholly separate spheres in your mind release news that they’re dating. I didn’t doubt the match, but the chances that these two pieces had found each other in time seemed nearly insurmountable until it happened.
Fictionalized obsession (or love, to put it nicely) unfurling between young adults as they travel the backroads of America eating people is not, at least in my mind, on the same plane as diary entries chronicling a man’s experiences during the AIDS crisis. (Mallon’s article is comprised of excerpts from his diaries across the late 80s.) For one, I like to keep a solid distinction between fictional suffering and real pain. While one may depict an emotional truth, the other has genuinely happened to someone. I’m not quite so comfortable critiquing the latter. For this reason, I filed the concurrence between the two away and decided to let it be.
However, I found myself continuing to think about it, if not for the interest of the two pieces put against each other, for the sheer serendipity that, of all things—I could have read another article or book, decided to listen to music instead, done a crossword puzzle on my way to the theater that night, or not gone at all—these two things occupied the same night for me, the same hours, and without that, none of these thoughts would have occurred to me. So, I am going to honor that serendipity and write about it.
* * *
Bones and All begins with more peace than the young characters find for the rest of the film. Maren (Taylor Russell) lives with her dad, sharing a calm, though not luxurious, existence. They eat a simple meal and go to bed. Unfortunately, Maren decides to be a kid and sneaks out to go to a friend’s slumber party. Also unfortunately, she is a cannibal—an Eater, as the film calls it—and bites off one of the other partygoer’s fingers. That is where the peace ends. Her dad abandons her, and she, for the first time, is all alone.
This beginning sets the viewer up for a guiding principle of Maren’s perspective: chaos and peace cannot coexist. For her, chaos is desire, her unknowable appetite. By leaving, her father tells her this—he, like her, or anyone, wants to be safe, and he can no longer justify being responsible for her desire. Her father takes with him the peace of their domesticity and leaves her with a tape that describes all the times she’s hurt people. In a way, it’s a trade-off—he takes with him the stability and safety of a parent and leaves her with the pain of misdoings she can’t remember. She spends the rest of the film trying to search for peace, but only as it defeats chaos, eradicates it.
For Mallon, a lot of the stress appearing in his diary entries comes from an opposite impulse: an inability to separate chaos and peace. In one instance, he goes to a gay church service to find a much-diminished crowd, which he explains away by saying, “Whoever isn’t dead from AIDS is out at Fire Island for the last weekend of summer.” Anyone he’s grown used to seeing at these community functions could just as easily be dead as they could be having fun. He accepts both of these possibilities as the truth. How does someone handle these plain opposites?
Fire Island in 1986, photo by Patrick Moreton
This echoes throughout the article as peace and chaos, their own set of opposites, also coexist. In one entry describing going for a run around the Central Park Reservoir, Mallon notes seeing Jacqueline Onassis two separate times; in another, also describing a run, he worries that his new shortness of breath means he’ll die of AIDS in the coming months. This time it is not the simultaneity of two separate truths that stands out but the jarring knowledge that in such unstable times, routine habits will not always provide the same relief. He can’t rely on one input to consistently result in the same output.
These diaries capture how opposites—chaos and peace, acceptance and escape, pain and pleasure (especially pertinent seeing as how fraught sexual expression becomes when it’s dangerous)—have to coexist, something that Maren avoids. She runs from place to place thinking she left pain behind to find some sort of safety, a version of the domesticity she longs for. Mallon, on the other hand, sits still and accepts both.
* * *
Bones and All is a movie, a piece of fiction. From its very inception, everyone involved in creating or consuming it knew there would be an end. In a lot of ways, this is a relief—something will be resolved. The life Mallon describes through his diaries couldn’t be more different. Not only do chaos and peace—pain and pleasure, community and solitude—coexist ad nauseam, but there is also no faith in a coming end. The epidemic could continue forever and infect everyone. He isn’t looking for an end. To him, the end is death. He’s looking for a new normal.
In what ways does the film’s coming end justify its characters’ actions? It allows for a certain amount of monomania, seeing as the only feasible way for a story to resolve in 131 minutes is for its players to not worry about much else. Characters can present their vile habits without shame because there isn’t time to slowly circle each other until they feel safe. When Maren meets Sully, one of the film’s main characters and a fellow Eater, after she gets off a bus, he seems to be waiting for her. Within minutes—minutes for us, hours for Maren—the two eat a corpse off a bedroom floor side-by-side. In the real world, we’d probably call it trauma bonding. In the movie, it’s a logical progression of plot. Maren needs to dive in deep, quickly, and get out just as fast. There’s under two hours left. She needs to move on.
Diary entries in Mallon’s article often span weeks-long gaps. He shares four entries from Thanksgiving 1987 through Valentine’s Day 1988, two of which happen over two months apart. It’s not as if nothing happened to him during those months, but his life isn’t a single progression towards a resolution point. It’s hard to imagine him doing what Maren does, diving in close with people within hours of meeting them, and in some cases running away just as quickly, because he doesn’t have a timeline. There is no coming end—no known one at least, not one with a face, and the fear that drives him towards it isn’t hard and loud but soft and poisonous. Maybe his fear is more underlying because, if he let himself feel it as desperately as Maren does, it would be annihilating.
* * *
Of course, Mallon’s article does have an end. His diaries recount an amorphous time, but the article occupies 6,500 words in last year’s New Yorker. He even ends the article with a borderline literary tilt:
“And will I be gathered in with the quarter of a million still to die? I tell myself I want only to finish these 2 books—let me see them done & out & then I’ll go quietly. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.”
He’s obviously accomplishing some kind of literary goal here. Now that he’s lived this experience, he reflects back on it and assigns it beginning and end dates, much like Guadagnino or any other creative—Mallon included—would do for a piece of fiction. It starts in 1985 with his new life after buying an apartment. Quickly, we find out his lover died of AIDS the previous year, and this kickstarts the narrative—the fear that he has “it,” HIV, drives him over the next few years. “Part of me would love to gamble & take the test,” he says, “but I can’t risk what would happen to my mind if it came back positive.”
Not surprisingly, Mallon is constructing a narrative. There’s exposition (he bought an apartment and started keeping his diaries there), context (he describes the world still spinning around him as his mind wanders continually towards the crisis), and stakes (he had sex with someone who contracted the virus) good enough to kick off any book or movie.
In a lot of ways, this cherry-picking of scenes and ideas moves backwards towards an end in the same way a film works forwards to one. The movie gives us stakes and characters and slowly rolls out the plot to a group of viewers dying to see how it ends; Mallon’s readers already know how it ends—he survived, and what he’s giving us is just as much a retrospective annotation of events as it is a story. Viewers watch Bones and All scene-by-scene looking for an end. They read Mallon’s article knowing the end, looking to see what happens in each scene.
Though Mallon’s article is a selected truth, this doesn’t decrease that truth’s veracity. It’s a point-of-view truth, a truth for a person, which is the whole point of a diary in the first place. Contrastingly, Bones and All shows emotional truths turned into a fantastical story. (Spoiler: at one point, Maren’s long-lost mother tries to choke her to death with her stumps-for-hands, which she ate herself.) But it’s a long-standing creative tradition to use completely alienating circumstances to highlight a basic truth. Is the remove Guadagnino gets through fiction so different from that Mallon gets through time?
* * *
The hope or fear of an end drives most of what I’ve talked about here. Chaos and peace can freely coexist when there’s no end in sight, but the pressure to rush off to one makes the two enemies. Maren stops running, eventually, and finds the peace she’s looking for, even though it doesn’t mean the eradication of chaos, and even though it doesn’t last long. The truths captured and communicated through the two pieces wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for an end. Both need a conclusion, bookends, to encapsulate their tales.
But how do I end this article? What is the truth I’m capturing and communicating? It has to do with ends, with stories, with opposites, with peace. It has to do with sadness, and safety, and fear. They are all so real, and one of the ways we cope with them is to bring them into narratives, either fiction that gives us such fantastical distance that we can appreciate the highs and lows for what they are, or nonfiction that layers time—the time when something happened and the time when it’s analyzed—to give the writer and reader a safe grasp on a real event. Maybe that is what it’s about—peace comes with remove, and chaos comes with entanglement, and whether it be through fiction or nonfiction, we tell stories to show ourselves that it’s natural to feel both at the same time. And that, I think, is a great note to end on.
Bones and All