Pain And Joy: A Life With NADJA Part One

The first of a five-part essay examining the making of Michael Almereyda's NADJA and the author's personal connection with that film.

By David Obuchowski · @DavidOfromNJ · May 24, 2021, 3:29 PM EDT
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NADJA (1994).

PART 1: THE FACTS IN FICTION

This is the first in a five-part narrative essay that provides an in-depth exploration of the 1994 movie, Nadja, as well as the deep personal connection the author has had with it since the film’s release. It details the lives behind some of the people in the film, as it leads the author to come to terms with his own struggles with self-doubt in his pursuit as an artist.

Fiction and nonfiction. Fantasy and reality. Art and life. They have a way of intersecting, intertwining, weaving into one and out from another; one imitating or inspiring the other and then the other way around.

So it is with the 1994 film, Nadja, written and directed by Michael Almereyda, produced by Mary Sweeney, Amy Hobby and David Lynch. A cult film, you might hear it described as. I guess that makes me a cult member. Though, I’ve never met any of the other members. It puzzles me why this film, one of my favorites that I’ve ever seen, is something I so rarely ever see referenced in print or hear people talking about.

For me, this obscure, neglected film has transcended mere classifications such as “good” or “great” or “favorite.” It’s such a massively personally important film that even I’ve long struggled to understand just why. Why has it resonated for two and half decades? Why do I return to it, finding even more connection with it and the people who made it? Why do I feel at home in it?

In this essay and the year's worth of research and interviews I did on it, I explore those questions and more. Like Nadja, this is a story about demons, about our hunger for things that give us life and that bring us pain; it’s about trying to bury our pasts and find light in the future.

Yes, this is a deep dive into the film as well as a very intimate look at some of the people who are in it. But it’s also a deep examination of my own life as a person searching for a place, for belonging, for acceptance as a writer and musician.

In other words, this essay is just as much about Nadja as Nadja is about vampires.

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***

A cloaked woman lives in New York City. She’s mysterious, and she likes to drink at the Lower East Side dive bar, Max Fish, where she usually meets people for one-night stands, but where she’ll also meet someone she’ll find herself entangled with in a more complicated way. The woman’s name is Nadja. She’s a vampire. Not just any vampire. Daughter of the most famous vampire of all: Count Dracula. She’s got a twin brother, too. His name is Edgar, but we’ll get to him later.

Nadja’s relationship with her father was troubled. So much so, she’s overjoyed when she gets word of his death. In fact, she can hardly believe it, and to be sure he’s not only dead but stays dead, she goes to the morgue with her constant companion, Renfield, to claim the body.

"What did your father do that was so bad?" someone asks her.

"To you, this will sound weird, but it's what I remember,” she answers in a soft, dreamy voice (and she has, of course, a Romanian accent). “When I was a little girl, maybe 5 years old, he made me eat thick slices of bread with lots of butter on them. To be strong. I went to the bathroom with the bread and scraped off the butter with a hairbrush and then I had to wash the brush. I was little and I was scared. It took a long time. And to this day, I can't stand to eat butter."

“This is a true story!” Nadja tells me. Only her name isn’t Nadja. And while the names are different, their voices are identical.

***

Her name is Elina Löwensohn and she played the titular role in Nadja. Now, she lives in Paris, France, and I can’t imagine how one can’t stand to not eat butter if they live in France.

“I can eat butter if it’s melted on toast,” she allows. “But otherwise everything that is very fatty I cannot deal with. Meaning like, I have nausea.”

Of course, her father was not Count Dracula. His story, actually, is far more horrific. “My father is a survivor of concentration camps. He was Jewish. He was sent to the concentration camp. He was older than my mother of eighteen years. He had us children when he was in his fifties, so quite old. This is why he lived through the second World War.”

The daughter of Count Dracula himself decrying her father because of buttered bread is unexpected and funny. But when removed from the film, the humor turns to heartbreak.

“For many years I didn’t understand,” Elina tells me. “Maybe it’s when I started therapy. But he used to force me to eat these sandwiches where he would make them with a lot of butter. Made me drink milk. Because I was very skinny when I was young and he probably couldn’t stand the fact to see me skinny… Food was, for him, something of great importance. Especially the butter, which is like abundance, I imagine, especially if you were in a concentration camp. And he, I remember, was very insistent and severe about me eating these sandwiches for dinner. But I could not stand the butter because it made me nauseous.”

Because she was so young, she says, “I couldn’t think of taking off the butter with a knife, or maybe I didn’t want him to see me in the kitchen, so I would go to the bathroom and in the bathroom I would see like a body brush and I would take the butter off with the brush, wash the brush, and then I would eat my sandwich without the butter.”

Elina’s father died when she was seven.

***

Elina immigrated to the United States from Romania at age 14. The year before, in 1979, her mother had successfully obtained a visa by staging a demonstration in front of the Romanian embassy in Washington, DC.

I tell Elina that I was born in 1979. “You see!?” she exclaims, “Connected!”

She’s like me. She likes to look for the hidden meanings and connections in everything. And I’m more than happy to have Elina feel we are mutually connected. I’ve been feeling connected with her since 1995.

That was the year I first saw the film.

It would have been in late August, weeks before my junior year of high school was to commence. Junior year – the year I was just beginning to awaken in a way. Nadja and Edgar were the children of Count Dracula, and so they were raised to be vampires. But at some point, they wanted to be free of their curse, live their own lives. We are all born of and raised by people. Like Nadja and Edgar, most of us reach an age where we look at ourselves for the millionth time but, for the first time, we see someone else – not just the product of a person or two people, but our own person.

1995 was the final year that I would play the sport I loathed. It was the year I upped my video store hours to 32 hours a week because it was better to sling cassette tapes for minimum wage than it was to sling a baseball across the plate for the benefit of someone else’s gratification rather than my own. It was the year I tried writing my own fiction, all of which was terrible, but it flowed from me nonetheless. It was also the year my obsession with playing guitar started bearing the smallest of fruit. My high school punk band – the thing I channeled all my teenage rage into – signed to a small punk label.

This was my first taste of blood, as it were – some glimpse of a life in which I made my own art whether it was music or writing, instead of just doing whatever it was people told me I was supposed to do.

This was when I made the 45-minute journey from Morristown, NJ, to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan so I could go see a film at the Angelika. It was something I did a lot of back then – go to see indie films in theaters, watch weird underground movies on VHS. That’s one of the reasons I was so happy working at the video store. If I couldn’t live in a world of my own creation, at least I could work in a place that allowed me easy access to countless created worlds inhabited by people who were maybe just a little like me.

That summer day, I sat down in my seat at the Angelika and I stepped into the world of Nadja.

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***

It opens with eerie music by Simon Fisher Turner. In composing the film, he included field recordings of New York City that he’d made, as well as ethereal piano. This served as a foundation on which cello, sparse guitar, and vocal samples were used. “We built up slowly over dense moods and took it from there,” he explained to me.

Along with the dense, layered, atmospheric score, there are abstracted, pixelated shots of... something. Light? Flame? Interspersed with those are the credits of the principal cast, presented in alphabetical order. Suzy Amis, a fairly recognizable name, is the first to appear. And there, the second name rendered in bold, capital letters:

GALAXY CRAZE

It was a name I’d never seen before, and my first thought was, "That name can’t be real. It must be fiction."

“My dad is from England, and he is Jewish and that was a pretty...” Galaxy pauses a moment then corrects herself before she fully says what needs to be corrected: “...well, not popular. But there are other Crazes in England.”

The topic of her name comes up multiple times. Sometimes I mention it, other times, she does.

“I really am self-conscious about my name,” she tells me at one point. And then another time, she says, “I really hate my name. I just – it doesn't go with my personality.”

Galaxy Craze has long been a mystery to me. Not only had I not recognized her name (and if I’d seen it before, I’d have certainly remembered), but I didn’t recognize her face, and then I’d never see her face in another movie again.

Strange considering she plays one of the leads in Nadja.

It was a question I pondered countless times over the course of two and half decades: Who is Galaxy Craze?

She did vanish from films, but she hardly disappeared. In fact, Galaxy Craze became a successful novelist.

I didn’t just learn this in the course of researching this essay. I have known that for many years. But, really, for a very long time, I’d made a concerted effort to ignore it. I’d avoided reading her books or reviews of them, did my best to not read the press about her. In my younger years at least, I enjoyed the intrigue.

The mystery added to the movie.

***

No. That’s not the truth of it. Not really.

As I write this, my favorite essay comes to mind. It’s called the “The Box,” and it was written by Michael David Madonick, and it was published in The Florida Review. I was introduced to the essay by Madonick himself in the year 2000, when I’d taken a creative writing class at the University of Illinois. This was the class in which I wrote my first decent short story.

In the essay, Madonick is trying to tell the story of two loves: one in the past, and one in the present. At one point, he glosses over how his first love started. He over-generalizes it. They had been friends at first, but then they kiss, and he writes, “we warned each other we might be killing the friendship, we might never come back to where we were.”

And then he stops, and he writes: “I correct myself as I write this. I say how can I write bullshit like this if I expect my students not to. [...] I try again.”

I try again.

I avoided learning about Galaxy’s books and writing career because of my own crippling self-doubt. I’ve dedicated myself to being a writer and a musician. Well, dedicated is one way of describing my efforts.

Struggled is another.

I’ve always been the kind of person who has viewed art and artists through the lens of my own inferiority and self-doubt. I’ve long found it difficult to see bands I love because to stand in a crowded room would force me to acknowledge how many half-empty rooms I’ve played to. Dead authors are easier to read because they’ve already been successful. New authors are far more difficult for me, not necessarily because I won’t like the books as much as the classics but because I must accept that these people who are near my own age are simply far more successful than I am.

I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this way. No matter how much you admire a person, it can be difficult to see them succeed so seemingly effortlessly. It was easier for Galaxy to be a mystery. Just a person who was amazing in one film, and then never seen again. That was more preferable to me than the real, actual Galaxy Craze: a mysterious person who could command a film with her performance, and then sell tons of books and rake in glowing reviews with her writing.

Strange for me to love a film so much when my own insecurity, inferiority and unending frustration are so inextricably linked with it.

***

But I am not alone in these feelings. I hadn’t expected Galaxy to consent to an interview. But she did. And one interview turned into many. And the interviews weren’t so much interviews, as long conversations between two people who could become friends.

As I got to know her more, I began to feel a kinship with Galaxy. She’s familiar with feelings of uncertainty.

“I feel like I want to write under a different name,” she sighs. And then she pauses for a second and asks me, not at all rhetorically, “Does that make any sense?”

I tell her it does make sense, but that I don’t agree.

Galaxy was close with her mother, but she considers the name her mother gave her to be a selfish decision. “She was 18. So, who can blame her?” she says. “But, I, on purpose, gave my kids, not totally normal names, but not completely off-the-wall names. So they can be a little bit, I don’t know,” she considers the right word for a moment, “anonymous.”

I tell her how much I like her name. It’s bold. It makes a strong impression. Mine is long and awkward and hard to pronounce. So I envy her name in a way.

But I admit that it’s easy for a person to assume it’s a name she’s given herself. I tell her how, when I was 16, watching Nadja for the first time, that was my first thought. “The name Galaxy Craze comes up, you think, ‘Maybe she’s a performance artist and this is her stage name.’”

“Exactly. Exactly,” she says in a way like she’s relieved I’ve put it in such terms, “OK, exactly. But it’s like, I am so far from a performance artist, and that is what I’ve been asked before. But I’m not a performance artist. It’s too loud.”

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***

Too loud. That’s been one of the most frequent criticisms of the music I’ve made over the years. In high school, my band put out EPs and singles and songs on small punk labels, and we would open for bigger, touring punk bands in New York City. It was a rare feeling of acceptance, but back in my school, and at home, I would play the music for friends and family. Too loud.

Perhaps, some would suggest, I shouldn’t be playing the music at all. Maybe, instead, I could just write the music and sell it to other, more talented, more accomplished people to play. People who could sing better, play guitar better, perform better.

I don’t want to sell it for other people to do it. It’s my music, and I want to play it, and I want to make my life creating and performing my own art.

You know what your problem is? You’re too sensitive.

That’s me. Too loud. Too sensitive.

Somehow, in my conversations with Galaxy, the topic of my bands come up. She’s interested, and asks me to send her some songs. She knows a lot of people who are musicians or who work in the industry – one of them being her husband, Sam. Back around when Nadja was released, she dated Evan Dando, the founder and frontman of The Lemonheads, an immensely popular band from the '90s.

She has only good things to say about Dando, but it wasn’t a good match, particularly at that time in their lives. “I was a writer,” Galaxy says. “And I never did any drugs. I don't even drink only because I don't like the taste of alcohol."

She preferred to stay home and "read at night instead of go out. And I've always been that way. And I was really shy. So, I never went out to clubs, and that's where you would do something like drink a lot or do drugs. And, so, me and Evan together were kind of an anomaly." But, she adds, "he's really smart and he can connect with people really well. I still really, really like Evan."

Galaxy is sitting in a park during this conversation. Someone’s dog runs up to her, and she takes a moment to pet it, adore it, speak to it. She loves dogs. When she speaks about herself and her past, she sounds slightly disinterested or disconnected, like she’s not sure what to make of the person who she’s speaking about. She sounds a lot like Lucy, her character in Nadja.

But then, when she talks to the dog, she comes to life. She asks the dog if he knows he’s a good boy, a handsome boy. The dog runs off, and Galaxy turns her attention back to our conversation. She apologizes if her voice is muffled. “I’m outside with my mask on,” she says.

I try to imagine what she looks like right there and then. Not as a 21-year-old actress in black and white, but a regular person, who’s almost 50, and who, like the rest of us, is wearing a mask.

I can almost picture it.

That’s what I think to myself because I’m doing that thing we all do when lines of dialogue from our favorite movies come to our mind as a natural reaction. In this case, it’s a line from Nadja. “I can almost picture it,” her onscreen husband tells her.

That character is portrayed by Martin Donovan who, unlike Galaxy Craze, was already recognizable when Nadja was released, and is even more so today. In my mind, he’s what I generally call a celebrity.

That’s why I’m shocked when, after many attempts to reach him, a friendly email arrives in my inbox from him. He’d be delighted to speak, he tells me. He has so much love for the project and the people behind it, he explains.

Only, I think he might not at all agree with my own assessment of him as a star...

Read Part Two: The Pain of Fleeting Joy.