Scenes From the Mundane Life of a Drunk

by KIM NICOLINI

I love Raymond Carver’s writing and his ability to capture small, seemingly mundane human moments and turn them into things of beauty and art. When I discovered that the movie Everything Must Go is based on a Raymond Carver short story, there was no way I was going to miss it.

Starring Will Ferrell, the movie follows a few days in the life of Nick Halsey. Fired from his job for his history of alcohol abuse (rehab, DUIs, fights, and other drunken mishaps), Nick drives home to discover that his wife has thrown all of his belongings into the front yard and has locked him out of his house, out of his bank accounts, and out of her life. The remaining 90 minutes of the film mostly takes place on Nick’s front lawn where he drinks beer, rearranges his belongings, has various interactions with his neighbors, and eventually has to decide to part with his “stuff.”

Parting with “stuff” is at the crux of this film as we watch the alcoholic Nick consume beer after beer while dealing with the possessions he has accumulated over the years and trying to decide whether to keep or get rid of them. Really, though, Nick’s “stuff” is not just the accumulation of things on his lawn but also the emotional residue of life, the baggage Nick and everyone carries. In this movie, we absorb Nick’s life and his relationship to those around him as he deals with his stuff, the stuff which he attempts to wash away with a seemingly infinite supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Everything Must Go is a quiet film. Rather than being some kind of proselytizing 12-step redemption narrative, the movie is simply an observation of one guy’s life as he deals with the stuff of his life in the capacity that he deals with it. Very true to the sentiments of Raymond Carver’s stories, the movie is a snapshot not a morality tale.

While the “everything” that must go is literally Nick’s belongings ? the stuff that is cluttering the front yard of his house ? the real “everything” that must go is all the garbage that is inside of Nick, the stuff he has been carrying around for a whole lifetime. Yes, the movie is about an alcoholic, about drinking, about the cumulative damage of the life of a drunk, about inheriting the legacy of drunks from our families, and finally about letting go, but all of that is quietly understated. It’s not beaten over our heads. No judgment is made; no happy ending or easy solution provided; and no redemption offered.

This is a movie about the details of life. From those exterior details and interactions, we get glimpses of Nick’s interior, and we understand that life is not black and white. It just is. Thinking about the movie in those terms, the fact that Nick befriends a black boy ? Kenny ? actually plays into the underlying sense that there are no black and white solutions to life, but that life just goes on as it does. We deal with it as we deal with it, sometimes not so well, sometimes better than other times. Sometimes things are black, sometimes white, but mostly they’re just gray.

The drinking scenes in the movie are done with perfect attention to the mundane life of the drunk. There is no climatic scene of self-destruction. No emotional blow-out. We just watch Nick sit on the recliner chair on his front lawn and drink can of Pabst after can of Pabst. We see him at the liquor store picking up one case of beer, then changing his mind and going back for a supplemental six-pack. We see him riding Kenny’s bike with two cases of beer dangling from the handle bars. We see him drain can after can until he drains all his money. We see him lift the empty cans to his mouth hoping to get a last few drops down his throat. We watch as his credit card is declined and he can’t buy any more beer and as he stands outside the liquor store and asks a stranger for a bottle of beer.

Anyone who’s been a drunk knows how true these moments are. That’s just how it is. Nick’s life as a drunk living on his front lawn is shown with such understated, clear and truthful observation that we could be watching a documentary about bowling (except this movie is much more entertaining).  That understated yet precisely descriptive quality of the scenes is what makes them so excellent.

The entire movie is framed around all the little details of Nick’s life ? the tiki-style rattan bar, the cross country ski machine that he uses while drinking a can of beer, his record collection, his television set, his baseball trophies, his high school yearbook, a rug that belonged to his grandmother, an old movie projector, a stack of Playboy magazines. The people in Nick’s life all come to him through his stuff or are involved in the exchanges of his stuff.

His friendship with Kenny is sealed when he employs the boy to help with his makeshift yard sale. When Nick spies on his neighbors and watches them have kinky B&D sex, Nick leaves them his Playboy magazines ? gives them his stuff, in other words ? to acknowledge that he accepts their “stuff.” Nick gives the pregnant neighbor Samantha who has just moved in across the street his mother’s old Polaroid camera in order to relieve himself of more of his stuff and give her something to deal with hers.

All the things Nick deals with, gives away, and talks about are somehow bound up with his past and his relationship to his family. Together they add up to the “everything must go” of the film’s title. They stand in for all the shit that we carry around with us, the stress and strain on our bodies and minds of things that are so much heavier than their actual weight:  a camera, a trophy, a record player, a yearbook.

What makes Everything Must Go so powerful is that, even though the movie is largely about emotional burdens, it resists building to some kind of emotional peak. We learn that Nick’s dad was a drunk when he talks about the record collection that belonged to his father the DJ. In one scene, Nick sits on his recliner watching old Super 8 movies from his childhood. We see the blurred image of Nick’s drunk father yelling at him while the boy plays baseball.

The image comes quickly and quietly. It carries a tremendous amount of emotional weight for us as viewers precisely because it only lasts a few seconds and is delivered silently, with only the flicker of the projector as soundtrack. It’s that tiny glimpse that makes the moment so powerful rather than hammering us over the head with some overwrought childhood memory. In other words, the emotional delivery system of the movie is all the physical stuff on which it centers. The mise-en-sc?ne is the narrative. They can’t be separated. Instead of witnessing bucket full of tears, we a swimming pool filled with the prize-winning fish Nick’s wife collects.

In another scene, Nick looks through his old high school yearbook and finds a page where a girl Delilah wrote to him that he was a “diamond in the rough.” Nick decides to track her down and ride Kenny’s bike to visit her. Delilah is played to perfection by Laura Dern as the middle-aged former rocker who is getting by raising her kids as a single mom. The scene with Delilah is so perfectly complicated, just like life is. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Nick shows up at Delilah’s door with his “stuff” (the yearbook), and Delilah brings up her “stuff” (an incident where she was bullied by a bunch of drunk boys at a high school party) that ends up overlapping with Nick’s stuff. The stuff of life is messy.
After a lot of tension and uncomfortable awkwardness, Delilah tells the story of the bullying and reminds Nick how he “saved” her. “You remember that?” she asks. Nick simply answers no. Of course, he doesn’t remember. He was too drunk to remember. So this moment of “stuff” from the past that could be laden with sentimentality is completely deflated by the fact that Nick can’t remember. There is no great revelatory moment of reconciliation and redemption. Life just is what it is.

The movie really is an accumulation of small moments and things, just like Raymond Carver’s short stories are snapshots of small moments and things. The movie is not about the “big story.” It’s about all the tiny details, the sum of the little things, the small interactions that build to show what it means when “everything must go.” The fact that the movie is delivered so effectively through those small details honors the true sentiment of Raymond Carver’s writing.

I reread the Raymond Carver short story ("Why Don’t You Dance?") on which the movie is based, and was struck by how incredibly sparse it is. It is a story that is all about things and how they stand in for emotions and human life. A mere six and a half pages long, the short story doesn’t even give a name to Nick. He’s simply known as “the man.” We are given no back story. All we know of him is that he has moved his stuff to his front yard; that he likes to drink whisky, and that he has an interaction with a young couple who wants to buy his bed and desk.

Director and writer Dan Rush did one hell of a job of adapting Carver’s 6.5 page story into a feature length film, inscribing a life (and name) to Nick, creating a whole cadre of characters, and giving narrative content to the story while also maintaining Carver’s voice, sentiment and style. Here is one of the opening paragraphs from Carver’s original story:

The chiffonier stood a few feet from the foot of the bed. He had emptied the drawers into cartons that morning, and the cartons were in the living room. A portable heater was next to the chiffonier. A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed. The buffed aluminum kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, along with a box of silverware and a record player, also gifts. A big console-model television set rested on a coffee table, and a few feet away from this stood a sofa and chair and a floor lamp. The desk was pushed against the garage door. A few utensils were on the desk, along with a wall clock and two framed prints. There was also in the driveway a carton with cups, glasses, and plates, each object wrapped in newspaper. That morning he had cleared the closets, and except for the three cartons in the living room, all the stuff was out of the house. He had run an extension cord on out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.

For a story that is only 6.5 pages long, this paragraph represents a large chunk of the content of the story. In fact, in the story we know more of the things than we do of “the man.” All we know is that he’s moved his things outside and is now living in his driveway. Of course, the metaphor of moving things outside is ripe, and that is an image that is not lost in translation in the movie. In the story, we are asked to experience an authentic human moment by being given sparse yet precise details of human life that are seemingly devoid of emotion. We are asked to “feel” through things.

Filmmaker Dan Rush managed to take this sparse glimpse of a piece of life and flesh it out while still staying true to Raymond Carver’s emotional minimalism. Sure, the movie is about Nick Halsey, but it is about Nick Halsey as seen through his “stuff,” not through his surface emotions. In the movie, Nick’s stuff becomes a stand-in for his interior life which we never really see in full capacity on the surface, just like we don’t see an interior life in Carver’s story. We have to experience emotion through things and what they represent. This is why both the movie and the story are effective, because we experience the emotional interior through the banal exterior.

This is not to say that the movie is dry or tedious. Like Raymond Carver’s stories, Everything Must Go is loaded with humor, those moments when we laugh at the absurdity of life as it is. The movie does a great job of delivering that humor in some very funny moments such as when Nick receives a monogrammed Swiss army knife as a severance gift and jams it into the tire of the guy who fires him, only to have the knife ? and the proof of his impotent revenge ? get stuck inside. Or when he gets in a fight over a Slurpee in a 7-11 parking lot, wakes up getting sprayed by the lawn sprinklers, or spies his neighbors having kinky sex.  There is a scene where he sells a bottle of mouthwash and some dental floss that is hilariously funny. The fact that something so ordinary (mouthwash and dental floss) can provide so much humor is definitely true to Raymond Carver’s style. And note, all these humorous moments are centered on “things” more than people.

Speaking of the kinky neighbors, they provide just another way that the movie shows that we all have our “stuff” and need to accept it for what it is. No one is “stuff free.” The movie isn’t just about letting things go. It’s about accepting what is. No one in the movie is sentimentalized or judged.  Nick’s relationship with Kenny never disintegrates into sentimental redemption. The material contains the potential for some big emotional moment with Kenny and Nick and their relationship to baseball: Either Nick teaches Kenny to play for a scene of redemption, or Nick lets Kenny down for a scene of moral failure. But neither happens. Life just goes on. Sometimes they throw a baseball. Sometimes they don’t. 

Even though the movie is called Everything Must Go, in a way the movie is about how it’s kind of impossible to let go of everything even if we want to. As Nick gives away all his stuff, there are some things that he will not part with; some stuff is here to stay. The end of the movie makes this point quietly clear. In the Carver story, “the man” gives away his record player and records to the young couple. In the movie, the record player and records (which belonged to Nick’s dad) are the only things that stay. In other words, he keeps the memory of his drunk dad.

The movie ends with Nick putting a record on the player and dancing in the street with his neighbor Samantha. It is a quiet moment that is delivered without sentiment. It is just another moment in life, and it certainly provides no sense that Nick has reached the other side of the rainbow. Nick is keeping some of his “stuff” (the legacy of his father), but he is also learning to dance with it. He is accepting the stuff he can’t let go while letting go of the things he can. Life goes on. There will be more stuff for Nick to deal with later. There always is.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com

 

 

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