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Portraits, Spirits, Islands on Fire

Portraits, Spirits, Islands on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire. 2019. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma.

The Tempest before the storm. Rocky shores, an island, a remote, semi-protected place for women alone. But they aren’t. And they know it. They know what awaits them offshore. They know what surrounds them, has always surrounded them. They know the countless obstacles in their way. Not just being young women. But being young women in love. Being jeune filles who love each other in 18th century France. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Sciamma’s film is a dream, a haunting, pre-Raphaelite dream, set on an island off the coast of Brittany in 1760. A young lady (Adèle Haenel), fresh out of the convent, is to be married to an Italian nobleman all too soon. Arranged, it is not what she wants. It is not who she is. So her mother, a countess (Valeria Golino), struggles to bring it all together with a portrait, thinking this will finalize the arrangement. Put a bow on it. So she hires Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to befriend Héloïse and paint her in secret, at night, after they’ve walked and talked along the shore.

Is her mother that much in the dark about her own daughter? Did she not know how the two would respond to new secrets and their revelations?

Héloïse still mourns for her sister, whose recent suicide likely sent her to an early life in a convent. The countess must have thought she could arrange both a friendship and a painting that would push her daughter into another world, far away from those remote rocky cliffs and death. She must have feared that her daughter would follow her other daughter into the sea. She followed the painter instead, into a new life, a new way of being.

Few movies know how to end things. Even the best films often fail to wrap up or open up as they should. Sciamma ends this most beautiful of melancholy odes in an impossible fusion of repressed eroticism, passion and understatement. Vivaldi is the spark. A treasured memory for Héloïse, an echo of rocky cliffs brought back to life.


Bokeh: The Blur Before and After

Bokeh: The Blur Before and After

Directed by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan, Bokeh is a beautifully understated Sci-Fi movie about the last two humans and what life might mean in that end of days context.

Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary), a young couple from America, take a romantic trip of a lifetime to Iceland, and only the first day is “normal.” Deep into that first night, Jenai wakes up, goes over to the hotel window, sees what looks like the Aurora Borealis, and then a flash of light that spreads across the screen. She goes back to sleep. The next day, as they walk through town, she and Riley quickly learn everyone else has disappeared. There are no humans, anywhere, just the beautiful Icelandic landscape of mountains, springs, waterfalls, flowers and empty homes and stores.

They do many of the things you’d expect. They go from store to store to get tools, water, food and other essentials. They take two SUVs so they haul their goods and travel across the island. There’s even an element of sudden, unexpected “freedom” involved in this, a kind of liberation to transgress that brings them at least brief moments of joy. Dancing. Mock fighting. Drinking in an empty bar. The world really is their oyster for a time, but along with the sense of liberation, there’s no escaping the absence of human life, though there are living horses, at least. Jenai, in a beautifully filmed moment, watches a herd of wild horses and rides one, lovingly, as if they had grown up together.

The film uses dialogue sparingly. It shows much more than it tells. And because it does this, because it doesn’t tell the viewer what to think, or when, we can jump into the situations depicted and ask and sometimes answer, “What would we do?” given the facts of a likely apocalypse. What steps would we take to survive, if we chose to go on at all? How would the knowledge of the absence of all other human life impact our decisions? The writers and directors of Bokeh — a word taken from Japanese to mean the blurring effects in photography (best represented by portraiture) — barely touch upon the metaphysics of apocalypse, though they give Jenai a few moments of spiritual questing. But as the movie proceeds, the underlying reasons for the catastrophe become less and less important, as another looms. What becomes clearer, via subtle hints and changes, is the divergent perspective of the last two humans, the different ways they view landscapes here and back in America, devoid of family, friends and others — the radically different way they view the potentialities of life in its last gasp.

Riley, with his old-timey camera, seems strangely okay at first, relatively speaking, with what has happened, at least to the point of wanting to make the best of it. He tells Jenai they can still have a good life, and when he said that, in that moment I thought how wildly different such a concept suddenly became. It would be the last life. They wouldn’t be handing off to another generation. Living out their days wouldn’t be within a “normal” frame of doing that. It wouldn’t hold the same kind of meaning as an unbroken chain of life, before, during and after, where believer and non-believer alike could both assume the story will go on. There won’t be any more to the story. No one will read about Jenai and Riley or see his photos. No one will ever read, or hike, or make love, or see the world as humans do ever again.

For Jenai, the far more spiritual of the two, this absence of continuity is profoundly problematic. As long as there is some hope that others, somewhere, might have survived like they have, she has more than enough strength to go on. But when it becomes more and more clear to her, via the absence of new TV shows, changes to Internet sites, email, voicemail and all the ways we communicate in the 21st century, her strength seems to fade. She goes into herself more than Riley does, at least as far as we can see, and she seems to need more than Riley can give to her. She needs to go home, and that’s impossible.

The movie stayed with me for several days, and seemed to grow beyond first impressions. With many a film, with much louder, more overt attempts to hook us, the initial viewing is better than thoughts later over coffee. Bokeh had the opposite affect on me: I liked it while watching it, but the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated what it was trying to be, to ask, to get us to think ab0ut.

The blur of life. How much do we miss as we live it? How much do we just ignore? How much do we have to ignore in order to function, and isn’t there something deeply flawed and unevolved in us that we have to “discriminate” so much in that way? Our focus is scattered, chaotic all too often. Furtive, shaky. And without art to get us to really slow down, stop, wait, attend to . . . really see, do we even “live” at all?





Genius is the kind of film literary buffs may like a lot more than we should. One reason for this, I’m guessing, is the rarity of the subject matter for a Hollywood production: literary lives. Specifically, the dynamic between editor and novelist. Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe are the central characters, with cameos from Fitgerald and Hemingway, two (more famous) authors Perkins also helped usher into world renown.

Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, with Jude Law as Wolfe, Laura Linney as Louise Perkins and Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s patroness and lover. It may seem odd that most of the leads are British or Australian, and that the New York scenes were mostly filmed in Manchester and Liverpool, UK. Especially strange, perhaps, because Wolfe, the Asheville, North Carolina native, was quintessentially American, an important precursor for artistic movements like the Beats. They who lusted so for the “real America.” But it works. It works. And it’s funny at times, too, like when Wolfe’s second manuscript is hauled into Perkins’ office, a dozen or so piles of highly stacked hand-written pages, waiting for his no doubt tired eyes. Luckily for both Wolfe and Perkins, Scribners had a large staff of secretaries who worked tirelessly to change the hand-written pages into typed works, ready for the editor’s pen.

I liked that it showed how possessed with words Wolfe was, how he just couldn’t stop writing, couldn’t stop the flow of words, couldn’t sleep. It reminded me of Picasso and his manic painting, sculpting, myth-making, driven as if by demons to always make art. Wolfe died far too young, at the age of 37, to experience the fall off from that high, from the feeling that you can’t not make art. So he will always be for us at the pinnacle of that fever. All 6’5″ of him. It never broke for Wolfe. He likely never experienced the frozen emptiness of searching for a lost muse. But some of us have lived long enough for that, for the end of fevers and staying up all night, thrashing around inside our heads and hearts to focus the chaos and bring it out, reshaped, into the world.

For decades, it was conventional wisdom that Maxwell Perkins shaped Wolfe’s best (and first) novel, Look Homeward, Angel, into something coherent, accessible, a work of genius. But in recent times, some scholars have countered this by saying that the conservative Perkins cut far too much, and not always for valid reasons of aesthetics. If he thought something was offensive on religious grounds, or wasn’t patriotic enough, or might offend sports lovers, he cut it out. Which led a couple of scholars to bring out Wolfe’s original manuscript, with its original title, back in 2000. I haven’t read O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, yet, but it’s on my list. So I don’t really know if those scholars have a solid case against what Perkins did. The movie doesn’t take that angle, of course, being more concerned with giving Perkins his due. The argument seems strong that it’s time for this. Like a river flowing back to its (parental) source. It doesn’t have to be either/or, when it comes to art.



We adapt. We create new fictions in order to adapt. The more things are beyond our control, the more fictions we create. This is the basic setup for one of the best films of 2015, “Room,” starring Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for her role as Joy, mother of five-year-old Jack.

The room in question is a shed. It’s their entire world, mother and son’s. They are not allowed to leave. Joy invents games and stories and explanations for Jack, in order to make this extraordinary situation ordinary. She invents games and stories and explanations in order to shield her boy from the harsh realities of life as a captive, a woman kidnapped seven years ago by a man they both call “Old Nick.”

We learn bits and pieces of their story as time goes on, but, at first, the freakish abnormality appears almost normal — Joy’s plan for her son. Just the two of them, making the best of it, with the occasional bouts of anger and rebellion from Jack, which Joy tries to defuse with anxious, worried love, never giving up hope of escape entirely, though she hides this from her son.

Emotions fly. This is a very emotional movie,  but never cheaply so. No Hallmark card, this. No saccharine uplift. No oversimplified mother and son dynamics. It’s very real, despite the surreal conditions and locale. They fight. When things change dramatically for mother and son, new experiences force new dynamics and they fight in different ways. But there is always love there. There are always deep, human connections and bravery and a sense of wonder at the world, no matter how large or small.

This is a truly wonderful movie, one that sends your thoughts out in a thousand different directions. It makes you see things in a different way, in many different ways, which is something Art does better than anything else.



Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Surprisingly good, fresh, funny and touching, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl tells the story of high school kids, coming of age, learning not just about life, but about death, and how we still keep discovering new things about people after they’re gone. Even the most important things. We still keep learning about ourselves in the process, and that how we treated them while they were on this planet is everything — well, except for realizing this should apply to the not-dying too.

Young Greg Gaines, played by Thomas Mann, is a senior in a Pittsburgh high school, and he’s socially awkward, very hard on himself, and tries his best to navigate through all the baffling teenage factions without ever getting involved in any one of them. And perhaps because he’s decided to remain free from all attachments — except for his one friend, Earl (RJ Cyler)  — he’s taken aback one day when his mother asks him to befriend Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke, who has been diagnosed with Stage Four Leukemia. His mother (Connie Britton), “the LeBron James of nagging,” wants him to go over to see her, so he does, and he initially makes a mess of things, but soon enough his quirky sense of humor wins her over and they become fast friends. So while she goes through chemo, loses her hair, gets sicker and sicker, they become close, and the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, tries to steer away from the usual Hollywood cliches. Greg narrates the film and tells us more than once that this won’t be the usual YA romance. And it isn’t, really. The fault is not in his stars.

But I bought it. And so did the audience at Sundance, apparently. And that helped launch this film, made for roughly 5 million dollars, into wide release last year. Though if you’re in a cynical mood, and inclined to pick these kinds of movies apart, it’s not that difficult — ironically, on grounds the director and writer likely sought to preempt. These days, it’s harder and harder to make movies without referring to other movies referring to movies and worrying overmuch that you’re caught unaware that it is a movie. Sometimes it’s easier just to make a blow ’em all up, action/chase/thriller/horror film and be done with it.





Timbuktu. 2014

One of the best films of the past year is Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmene Sissako. Understated, beautifully shot and composed, it tells the story of a village, a people, caught in the arbitrary and repressive grip of a Jihadist takeover. The focus of the film, but never at the cost of the village’s story itself, is a small family on the outskirts of Timbuktu, making a life on the dunes. Kidane, the father, Satima, the mother, their daughter Toya, and the young shepherd, Issan. Perhaps because of their existence on the periphery, this small family had managed to avoid most of the cultural and social repression being arbitrarily imposed on those in the village, but a tragic accident changes all of that.

I was struck by the images, again and again. The incredible beauty of the desert, the dunes, the motion of people crossing them, running on the sand. But, especially, the scene of a soccer game, which is one of the most beautiful in any film in recent memory. The jihadists had just handed down yet another absurd and meaningless edict, this time outlawing soccer (football for them). But this didn’t stop the youth of this village from playing the game without an actual ball. The flow, the joyful resistance to arbitrary, ridiculous power, along with the expressiveness of the camera work, make for a classic scene worth the price of admission all by itself.

And then there was music, which had also been banned. Resistance lives within music as well. Primarily led by the women of the village, we see people risking their lives for that part of life that gives it meaning, sustains them, brings them closer together in memory and song. One woman is whipped for being caught singing the blues (in a gorgeous and moving performance), and her extreme bravery continues as she sings under the lash.

These are a people with tremendous courage and resilience, and the movie never shows them breaking or collaborating with the authorities. But it also hints that there is no way out and that this is just the beginning of the repression. This is just the beginning of a return to primitive visions of “justice,” where people accused of adultery are stoned to death.

Why do we believe in fictions that crush life? Why do we accept the word of those who say they speak for divine power? Of course, once we accept the fiction that divine power exists in the first place, we are all too susceptible to that. But it’s not inevitable that we would hand over our personal autonomy to other humans, just because they claim to speak for those fictions. Even believers should demand they prove their legitimacy, prove they can justify what they ask of us, at least within the context of that fiction. All too often, however, fundamentalists in all the major religions pull nonsense out of thin air, and can’t show that even the founders of those religions ever paid the slightest attention to their particular obsessions. Soccer? Music? Dancing? And, of course, Christian fundamentalists have their own list of totally arbitrary, puritanical obsessions never mentioned by their Christ. To me, if a religion does not affirm life and bring joy into the world, it has no purpose.

Life is tough enough all by itself. To add more chains is nothing less than insane.


It’s Their Turn

It’s Their Turn

In the last several years, there has been a long over due spate of films with women as heroes. Two recent movies have told the tale of women, based on their memoirs, testing themselves against the harshest of elements, against nature, striving to go beyond their previously known levels of endurance. This has long been the staple of hero stories for men. But it seems that finally women are getting a chance to show what they can do, what they’ve always been able to do. Tracks, a fine film, directed by John Curran and starring Mia Wasikowska, tells the true story of Robyn Davidson’s (1977) journey, 1700 miles across Australian deserts, with camels and a dog, to reach the Indian Ocean.

This is no Hallmark movie, with the usual pre-packaged displays of all too conventional wisdom and supposed discoveries of inner truth. Wasikowska’s Davidson is far too understated for that, and she probably likes her dog and her camels more than being with other people. Whatever profundities one gains from watching the movie are pretty much all up to the viewer, who must piece together the beauty of the land, contemplate the sometimes death-defying battle with nature, and make their own call. In short, the director, the writers, the actors, and no doubt Ms. Davidson herself would rather treat us all as intelligent adults, than as consumers of short-cuts to “a better you.”

Wild is also based on a true story, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in an Oscar-worthy performance. Like Tracks, it tells of a solo journey of a very determined hiker, this time one who begins in Southern California, crosses the Mohave Desert, and winds up at the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon. While Tracks had its share of flashbacks and connections with the heroine’s past, Wild weaves those moments in and out more frequently. Cheryl’s mother, played by Laura Dern, becomes her inner touchstone, her rock, and is possibly the main reason for the trek in the first place. Along with crucial help along the way from assorted hikers and a farmer, it is the spirit of the mother that helps push Cheryl on and prevents her from giving up.

Unlike Wasikowska’s Davidson, Reese Witherspoon is constantly inside her own tortured head and going deeper into her psyche as her travels drag on. But like Tracks, it is largely the physical challenge and struggle with the elements that makes this confrontation with the self possible. We just see more stream of consciousness in Wild, learn more about the protagonist’s past, her family history and her battle with addiction and its effects. Strayed’s past indicates no reluctance to engage in human contact, unlike Davidson’s preference for being alone, but at times it may have been better off if she had chosen dogs and camels instead.

Watching these two excellent films without too much separation in time strengthens both and helps prevent cookie-cutter responses to the travails of both hikers. I recommend checking out both movies together.


What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew

Based on the Henry James novel (1897), “What Daisy Knew” is a remarkable film about parental dysfunction, relationships gone bad, and a precocious, wonderful child who sees through it all.


The directors, Scot McGehee and David Siegel, update and alter the novel somewhat and set it in present day New York. They change the vocations of the parents, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, respectively, and compress the time frame for the story. But it works. Its tight construction and effortless flow make it work, subtly, without calling attention to itself.

Maisie, played by Onata Aprile, in a performance that is stunning for its naturalness and understated quality, must navigate through the labyrinth of divorce, betrayal and negligence, as she is shuffled off between parents and their new love interests. A child of six, she adapts, grows wiser, seemingly wiser than her parents or the two younger, far more responsible substitutes. Her mother, a rock star with an erratic work schedule, sets up a marriage of convenience with a bartender friend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and Maisie falls for him. Her father, an art dealer with an erratic schedule, marries the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) for undefined reasons. We don’t know if they’re romantically involved, and subsequent events cast doubt on that possibility. Maisie loves her as well, despite the confusion.

A key moment for me is when her mother returns unexpectedly from her music tour, in the middle of the night, and wants Maisie to get on the bus with her right away. Maisie is staying with the nanny and the bartender at the beach, who now have their own budding romance, and is excited about going on a boat on the morrow. The mother doesn’t understand the import of this and says she can always go on a boat at another time. The film doesn’t tell us how to see this moment, but it shows us through Maisie’s eyes, and then the eyes of her mom. To a child of six, every adventure is incredibly important. They haven’t built up enough experiences to see any of them as easily postponed. They all loom large in a child’s mind, and they lack the jaded notion that it’s no big deal what we do. We can always do it some other time.

Of course, as adults, we tell ourselves this and we seldom make good on our promises of make-ups and rain checks. That trip we promised ourselves and had to postpone just never happens. Children don’t understand the concept, as they live far more in the moment, with each moment being a really big deal. When we lose that sense, we lose a big, essential chunk of our lives.

Maisie, and the actress who plays her, seem to know this. The directors (and Mr. James) apparently do as well.


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