April is unpredictable. One day we have warm, sunny weather, the next there would be flurries. But the creek and pond have mostly melted. A new sound I heard a few weeks ago when I was walking by a stream, something I had never encountered before. The sound of melting: the cracking of ice, like a small firecracker had gone off.
But this is the true herald. When I saw the first robin, I knew Spring had arrived. There were many of them during my walk last week, turning the woods into a convivial nesting playground.
And up in the sky, a red-tailed hawk flew by. Sunlight seeping through its feathers:
At the bird sanctuary, the wood ducks are back, brightening up a cold morning:
But here’s what made my day: my first time sighting a Hooded Merganser. This is rare in our locale. From their range map, they’re only passing through during migration.
I often think of the female Common Merganser as having hair like Lucille Ball’s. I’ve found another celeb look-alike… the male Hooded Merganser’s hair sure has an Elvis look:
As for the female, I always find them to be more playful than the male, both the Common and now as I observed the Hooded one. Wish I’d taken a video to share. She was splashing and calling out in exuberance, while Elvis glanced back in nonchalant coolness:
Sure, shake your sillies out… Spring has sprung!
“April is the cruellest month…” says T. S. Elliot in The Waste Land. He has his reasons. For me, April teases us with uncertainties, so in that sense, it’s a bit cruel. Just when you think it’s spring, a snow storm cometh. And just as that snow has melted and the temperature goes way above freezing and you step out to that bright sunshine, the brutal wind blows your optimism away and drops you back to sub-zero chill.
Just like this frequent visitor to my backyard. Crept underneath the fence to hide in her favourite spot under the spruce tree, uncertain which coat to wear, winter or spring, white or brown:
Just as our world has lived through a pandemic year, now with vaccines in hand, here come the new waves of variant outbreaks, bringing more uncertainties.
I wrote this poem at Easter exactly ten years ago. At that time I was dealing with a bit of a writer’s block, some kind of brain freeze while facing the real freeze outside. The next time I re-posted the poem a few years later in 2016, I was stressed out dealing with the post-surgery care of a family member. Thanks to all who had commented then, we got out of it slowly and experienced the grace of healing.
Easter 2021 is none like others. Distressful situations have multiplied, their magnitude in epic scale. As with everyone else in this world, I’ve lived through a pandemic year, which alas, still has no end in sight with the outbreaks of variants. And personally, I’m wary even just walking in public, not only for Covid risk, but having to look out to avoid being spat at or punched in the face due to all the unprovoked violence against Asians, or women, or both. Face masks may help protect us from a physical virus, but not that stemming from the human heart. Looking out to the world political stage, looming conflicts breed like a plague.
That first Easter wasn’t a celebration but an execution. A dark day, a torturous public punishment, Crucifixion. It was there in the middle of the world––signifying the centre and reaching to all––one sacrificial death unleashed the power of divine love to save us from ourselves, a concept I’m beginning to grasp as more and more urgent and relevant now. After death came the ultimate miracle, resurrection. That same resurrecting power today can raise the deadest of soul to a brand new life.
An Easter Poem
April is the month of empty dreams
Half the days gone
waiting for words and spring
still frozen ground
and on the screen
a frigid page as white as snow.
Brown could be the color of hope
After the white
for all I know
green is too much to wish for
I’m contented to see a patch
of dry and withered brown.
The sun is a perpetual sign
that there’s still hope
But it’s no herald of the seasons
for its presence comforts all year long
warming my blank and barren state
as I await for words and spring.
But Easter is an apt reminder
that The Word had come
spoken clear to half-frozen ears
His body hung on a lifeless tree
Blood and water flowed
onto parched and dusty earth
So what if no words come to me
That dreaded writer’s block
reigning the winter of sterility
seizing any sign of spring.
It’s not about a post or a blog,
Or even buds and melting snow.
The Word had come
lived and loved among us,
broken, bled, died and rose,
melting frozen hearts to greet
a new dawn and eternal Spring.
–– Arti (April, 2011)
That historic Event in the past overrides all uncertainties in the future. He is risen!
Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood experience. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant father striving to succeed in America while his wife strains to keep their family together. In the midst of the struggle for a better life, two children watch and learn and grow.
Chung’s counterpart in the movie, seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), follows his parents Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), together with his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. Driven by the ambition to be successful, especially in the eyes of his children, Jacob has purchased 50 acres of land to start a farm growing Korean produce. With the influx of Korean immigrants coming into the country during that time, Jacob sees a wealth of opportunity.
Jacob and Monica still hold a day job at a hatchery doing chicken sexing, separating the male chicks from the female, but Jacob sees no future in the routine work. The farm is his dream. In the sexing process, the male chicks are discarded, for they don’t taste as good and can’t lay eggs. A ready object lesson for him to teach his young son: be useful. And when he digs a well, he dismisses the dowsing method offered to him. “Koreans use their heads,” he tells David.
Monica, however, sees a very different picture. The dream home in the country for Jacob is for her, realistically, a trailer on wheels held up by cinder blocks. Water is from a well which later is drained dry to the crops. There’s no community nearby. Her main concern is living far from a hospital as David has a life-threatening heart murmur. “Don’t forget to keep praying,” she tells David. The couple’s opposing views lead to frequent conflicts in front of the children.
The tipping point comes when Monica’s mother is recruited to help with the kids. Arriving from Korea, Grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) brings with her Korean spices and rarity not found in America, as well as Korean songs, memory of courtship that has long been buried by her daughter and son-in-law.
For David, Grandma is far from what he has expected. She is a raucous card player, swears, doesn’t cook or bake, uses half his room and, aggravating his annoyance, snores. The interplay between grandma and grandson make up some light-hearted scenes which elicit from Kim performance in his natural poise alongside the veteran, seasoned Youn. The key element in their eventual bonding is love. Kudos to Chung for his screenplay and directing.
Another supporting role that has added spice to the film is Paul (Will Patton), a practical farm help to Jacob. A devout Pentecostal, Paul’s eccentricity is a laughing stock even with church kids. Jacob does not subscribe to his beliefs. Admirably, the two can still work in harmony.
Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and winning both its Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Minari has come a long way this past year garnering accolades. The film is now an Oscar nominee in six categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Chung. Yeun becomes the first actor of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor. Youn gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.
Compared to his acclaimed debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), an arthouse, experimental film about two youths in post-genocide Rwanda, Minari is a conventional take on a personal, family story. The storytelling is linear and captured in realism, as we follow the Yi family’s first arrival to rural Arkansas and the daily struggles as an immigrant, farm family. The film’s subject matter and Chung’s handling is deceivingly simple.
Thanks to the eponymous vegetable, the minari, Lee transfers the specific to a wider scope in different layers. Minari is a Korean watercress that grows hardily in wet soil. Grandma has brought some minari seeds with her from Korea and sows them beside the creek near their home. As days go by, the plants thrive on their own, an apt metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of immigrants taking roots in a new soil.
In contrast to a grim lesson of discarding the male chicks at the hatchery David learns from his father, the minari along the creek is a visual reminder of being alive and useful. Grandma sings its praises, for the versatile vegetable can be put in kimchi, stew, and soup, and used as medicine when sick. “Minari, Wonderful.” Grandma and David burst out in an impromptu song. A delightful scene is captured by the camera. As the wind blows, the plants bow as if acknowledging their praises. A moment of magical realism.
As time goes by, the minari plants thrive, and David’s heart condition has improved on its own such that surgery is no longer needed. In the climactic scene and its fallout, a contrast is particularly notable. Jacob sweats and labors on his crops which can be gone in an instant, but the minari grows naturally in the wild and David’s illness healed, pointing to a harvest of transcending grace that is beyond human efforts. The denouement is a gratifying close to a chapter of childhood memory.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.
When did women first direct films? If you type these words in your search engine, you’ll see this year pop up: 1896 and the name Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968). In her filmmaking career that spanned over two decades, Alice Guy had written, directed, or produced more than a thousand films in France and later in America. She was a pioneer in fictional narratives, comedies, actions, travelogues, musicals (yes, films with sound), just to name a few categories of her cinematic works.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018), directed by Pamela Green and narrated by Jodie Foster is a fascinating documentary, a must-see, now streaming on the free platform Kanopy.com. “Be Natural” were signs Alice Guy put up in her studio for her actors as a reminder.
Cut to 2010. In the annual study The Celluloid Ceiling on women behind-the-scene employment in filmmaking, only 2% of the top 250 films made that year in the US were directed by women. In 2018, it was 4%. Then there was a big jump in 2019 to 12%. In 2020, due to the pandemic, the study included 100 top films instead of 250, the percentage of women directors increased to 16%.
2019 appears to have marked a tipping point, hopefully a trend that stays, as more women are being recognized as ‘profitable’ in the filmmaking business. Further, people also found out women can direct various genres, including action and superheroes movies too. Just wonder what Alice Guy would had thought if she were around.
On this day, March 8, 2021, in honor of the many woman directors working, I’m posting a list with their names first then their works released for the year back to 2019. This is only a selection and mainly for films distributed in North America. You might recognize some names or titles of books. In alphabetical order:
Ana Lily Amirpour – Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Clio Barnard – Ava & Ali
Camilla Belle – Phobias
Shari Springer Berman (co-director) – Things Heard and Seen
Halle Berry – Bruised
Kay Cannon – Cinderella
Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog
Nia DaCosta – Candyman
Livia De Paolis – The Lost Girls
Julie Delpy – My Zoe
Claire Denis – Fire
Augustine Frizzell – The Last Letter from your Lover
Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter
Rebecca Hall – Passing
Sian Heder – Coda
Joanna Hogg – The Souvenir: Part II
Eva Husson – Mothering Sunday
Lisa Joy – Reminiscence
Dea Kulumbegashvili – Beginning
Mélanie Laurent – The Nightingale
Lena Khan – Flora & Ulysses
Castille Landon – Fear of Rain
Mia Hansen-Løve – Bergman Island
Lila Neugebauer – Red, White and Water
Megan Park – The Fallout
Amy Poehler – Moxie
Céline Sciamma – Petite Maman
Cate Shortland – Black Widow
Liesl Tommy – Respect
Kate Tsang – Marvelous and the Black Hole
Lana Wachowski – The Matrix 4
Olivia Wilde – Don’t Worry Darling
Robin Wright – Land
Robin Wright, Catherine Hardwicke – Together Now
Chloé Zhao – The Eternals
Niki Caro – Mulan
Sofia Coppola – On the Rocks
Autumn de Wilde – Emma
Josephine Decker – Shirley
Clea DuVall – Happiest Season
Mona Fastvold – The World to Come
Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
Nisha Ganatra – The High Note
Liz Garbus – Lost Girls
Julia Hart – I’m Your Woman
Eliza Hittman – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Patty Jenkins – Wonder Woman 1984
Natalie Erika James – Relic
Miranda July – Kajillionaire
Regina King – One Night in Miami
Roseanne Liang – Shadow in the Cloud
Phyllida Lloyd – Herself
April Mullen – Wander
Mira Nair – A Suitable Boy
Gina Prince-Bythewood – The Old Guard
Dee Rees – The Last Thing He Wanted
Adriana Trigiani – Then Came You
Cathy Yan – Birds of Prey
Jasmila Zbanic – Quo vadis, Aida?
Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
Elizabeth Banks – Charlie’s Angels
Chinonye Chukwu – Clemency
Mati Diop – Atlantics
Lisa Barros D’Sa – Ordinary Love
Anna Boden (co-direct) – Captain Marvel
Gabriela Cowperthwaite – Our Friend
Nora Fingscheidt – System Crasher
Nisha Ganatra – Late Night
Sarah Gavron – Rocks
Greta Gerwig – Little Women
Rose Glass – Saint Maud
Kitty Green – The Assistant
Alma Har’el – Honey Boy
Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers – The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open
Nahnatchka Khan – Always Be My Maybe
Jennifer Lee (co-director) – Frozen II
Kasi Lemmons – Harriet
Melina Matsoukas – Queen and Slim
Shannon Murphy – Babyteeth
Lydia Dean Pilcher – A Call to Spy
Kelly Reichardt – First Cow
Lorene Scafaria – Hustlers
Angela Schanelac – I was at Home, But…
Céline Sciamma – Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Lulu Wang – The Farewell
Olivia Wilde – Booksmart
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Last night I dreamt I was interviewing Chloé Zhao. Not just a sit-down interview, but I actually hung out with her as buddies. That was a dream, and that much is true.
Before the dream, I was watching the 78th Golden Globes Awards show aired live last Sunday night. This year, it’s a much scaled down, stripped to the minimal, virtual event. The show must go on, as they say. So, we have Amy Poehler from the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles and Tina Fey from the Rainbow Room in New York being pulled together on one screen as if they were standing side-by-side for the fourth time hosting. A technical marvel.
Nominees were at home or wherever they were at that moment, wearing whatever they felt like, watching and giving acceptance speech via their own small screen. A few of them were at the Beverley Hilton adorning glamorous, designer gowns, a reminder of previous Globe glitters and the red carpet.
Other than the unprecedented format, history was made last Sunday night.
Chloé Zhao became the second woman to win the Best Director Golden Globe award in the 78-year history of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual extravaganza. She is also the first Asian woman to do so. What more, her film Nomadland won the top prize, Best Motion Picture – Drama. As a co-producer, she became the first woman producer of Asian descent to receive that accolade.
For a historical reference, Barbra Streisand was the first female to win a Best Director Golden Globe with Yentl in 1984. Taiwanese-American Ang Lee claimed that honor twice with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001 and Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the only other Asian American to take that award.
If it’s not due to Covid 19, never could there be a Best Director and Best Motion Picture winner accept the Golden Globe dressed in an olive color t-shirt, hair in pigtails. She probably might not be at home, maybe at work on location. But still, I remember the Cannes controversy where female stars were frowned upon––no they didn’t outright say ban––for not wearing heels on the red carpet.
It’s in this unassuming manner that Chloé (I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me calling her by her first name) picked up her color-matching mug to toast everyone and gave her virtual acceptance speech. Quoting the ‘guru’ among the nomads, Bob Wells, she said:
“Compassion is the breakdown of all the barriers between us. A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us.” She then went on to say, “this is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories cause it gives us the chance to laugh and cry with each other, to learn from each other, to have more compassion for each other.”
An iconoclast, no doubt. If not because of the pandemic, I can’t imagine a female Globe winner in a t-shirt and I assume, no make-up, and speaks from her heart, not to shun the glitter of the gold but just to be her normal self of a human being, most likely here too, as an identification with the nomads in her film.
Accepting the Best Motion Picture – Drama award, she said about Nomadland:
“At its core, for me, it’s a pilgrimage through grief and healing. So, for everyone who has gone through their difficult and beautiful journey at some point in their lives, this is for you. We don’t say goodbye, we say see you down the road.”
Maybe that image rippled in my mind as I went to sleep and conjured up that dream…
Well, see you down the road, Chloé. And hopefully then, not in a dream, but for real.
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Yesterday I went back to the place where just a few days ago I saw the Trumpeter Swans, and this time I found more. One adult and five juveniles were swimming leisurely in a peaceful surrounding. The scene was breathtaking.
This was the closest I’ve ever got near to a bird this big. They were swimming just a few feet from the snow-covered river bank where I was standing. This time, I could observe much clearer the beauty of their form… and discovered, of course, it’s in the curves!
Their naturally endowed, long neck is a posture of grace when held up straight, elegant and serene:
But when they bend down, the velvety, long neck creates curves that are sensually stirring:
When they fly, I could see the lofty curvature composed by their wings:
Beauty in its most natural and simplest form. Not flaunting, just being. Nothing they do to cultivate that, all endowed by their Maker, the creative Giver of life and grace.
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
– Mary Oliver (italicized lines her own)
Yes, I saw it… and felt it. Still rippling in my heart.
Previously on Ripple, I posted pictures of song birds that stay here in the winter. The House Finches surprised me, still chirping away in -24C (-10F) wintry air. But today, as I walk along the river, basking in the balmy weather (just at freezing point), I behold an even rarer sight. Trumpeter Swans!
Normally, they fly to the south and the Pacific Northwest beginning October, but ‘normal’ is no longer a term with relevance these days. Maybe the birds already knew that. With Texas bombarded with arctic storm and sub-zero F. temperatures this week, the Trumpeter Swans must have decided not to bother months before. Staying close by the river here above the 49th at least there’s food. And, as they say, if you don’t like the weather, just wait––normally five minutes––I’ll give it a few days.
An adult Trumpeter Swan with two juveniles on the river close by the shore, unafraid of the few of us birding paparazzi shooting away.
Interestingly, two Mallards cling to the Swans closely, reminds me of the term ‘imprinting’. Parent Swan keeps an eye on them fondly. Neighbourhood watch.
Half a mile up the river, there’s another juvenile all on its own. I gather it must be a teenager, as the plumage is more white than grey as the younger ones, also for its personality. This one just wants some alone time, seeking independence. Note the black foot out:
A fruitful day of birding and workout chasing after swans.
Love in all its forms: steadfast, unrequited, hidden, or blind… These classic novels aren’t just about romance, but deal with their subject matters in the context of their social milieu, gender relations, class disparity, individual aspirations and angsts, as the authors explore that elusive entity called love.
What better time than now to watch these movie adaptations again, or for the first time, since many of us can’t go anywhere under pandemic restrictions. So, here they are, the Ripple list of stay-at-home viewing for Valentine’s 2021. Links are to my Ripple reviews.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – With this novel, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer in 1921, which makes this year the 100th anniversary of her Prize honour. Wharton’s depiction of the Gilded Age and Newland Archer’s inner torments are aptly captured by Martin Scorsese (1993), and of course, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.
A Room with A View by E. M. Forster – Merchant Ivory’s 1985 production remains the definitive classic. Lucy opening the window of her (exchanged) room in the Pensione Bertolini to see the view of Florence, enwrapped by the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa singing “O mio babbino caro”. And what a cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Here’s a story of an unhappy family; true enough, epic in its unhappiness, as the ending shows. The Joe Wright directed, Tom Stoppard scripted adaptation (2012) is worth a look for its highly stylized rendition. How many other versions? At least three dozen.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn make ideal screen lovers, but life isn’t ideal. Holly Golightly singing “Moon River” by the fire escape of her NY apartment is heart-tugging. Yes, that’s her own voice. But major flaw I try to ignore is Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi. Have to forgive and forget that dated, racially stereotyped portrayal.
Emma by Jane Austen – It has been 24 years since the last full-length feature of Emma was made for the big screen, time for a millennial version (2020). Rising star Anya Taylor-Joy got two 2021 Golden Globe Best Actress nominations for her roles in Emma and The Queen’s Gambit. The multi-talented Johnny Flynn (The Dig) is the updated Mr. Knightly.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene – The 1999 movie came out three years after The English Patient, another one of Ralph Fiennes’s dead-end passion for someone he can’t have. Graham Greene’s classic is Colin Firth’s choice to record for UK Audible, a series by famous actors reading their favourite classic novel. What more can you ask?
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – As much as I enjoy Carey Mulligan’s works, for this one, I think the director and screenwriter had mishandled the adaptation, albeit I must say I love the lush green Dorset landscape. For nostalgic reasons, maybe it’s time to revisit John Schlesinger directing Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene (1967), with Alan Bates and Peter Finch.
Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton – May not be on the list of early 20th C. classics, but the 1969 film is a gem. Peter O’Toole won a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role as poor old Mr. Chips, and Petula Clark is a natural. The scene where she sings out ‘Fill the World with Love’ at the school assembly is hilariously inspirational.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I like Robert Redford as Gatsby (1974), but Carey Mulligan as Daisy (2013), so, it’s a toss-up between the two versions. Also, I think Gatsby is great not because of his extravagance and opulence, on which Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version focuses. He’s great because of his steadfast, and you could say, blind, love for Daisy. The only reason he strives to climb to the top is to win her back. The 1974 version is more subtle, screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola.
Howards End by E. M. Forster – The 1992 Merchant Ivory production is classic, the more recent adaptation derivative of it. James Ivory directing, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Best adapted writing Oscar), cast Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson (Best Actress Oscar), Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter. Book and film worth revisiting time and again.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – With over twenty adaptations for the big and small screens, which one do you choose? I appreciate the newest 2011 full-length feature directed by Cary Fukunaga. The storytelling is fresh and cinematography stylish, screenplay by Moira Buffini who 10 years later scripted The Dig. As for the actors, I can’t say whole-heartedly that the Fassbender and Wasikowska duo are as good as Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton though.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life, and paints for us what love is all about. One of the best films I’ve watched in recent years and an updated version for today. This would make a fine 2021 Valentine’s stay-at-home viewing.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen – Best to be an armchair traveller during a pandemic, and let the movie transport you to a freer landscape. As for this one, lament a love unrequited. Being in Africa, Karen (Meryl Streep) should have known that she can’t chain a lion to one spot. Denys (Robert Redford) has to roam the mountains on his own. While Mozart might be able to subdue him momentarily, the wildness inside him can’t be tamed.
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford – Ford’s tetralogy was adapted into a 5-episode BBC mini-series (2013), which didn’t get much attention this side of the Atlantic. The love between Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) is latent and restrained, and does not surface in more realistic way until the last episodes. Why, there are more important issues to deal with such as a World War, women suffrage, and Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall).
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Here’s a dreamy scenario: time rolls back 25 years for Colin Firth to do a remake. This time, let’s have Carey Mulligan to play Elizabeth Bennet, ok, roll back 10 years for her, and never mind that she was Kitty in 2005. Failing these, I’ll settle for the 1995 BBC series again. But thanks to our dear Jane, we can always revisit her characters in our literary dreamscape,
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I’m sure Emma Thompson would want to roll back 25 years too, when in 1996 she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her adapted screenplay of this first novel by Jane Austen. She’d no doubt want to bask in the limelight again, for that night she gave her Golden Globe acceptance speech that Jane herself would have applauded.
A shout-out to The Classic Club, an admirable endeavour.
First caught my eyes when I looked out the window were the movements of flight. It was -23C (-9F), which birds were still active in these temperatures? I could hear them chirping cheerfully out on the trees in my backyard.
House Finches are not supposed to be hanging out in this latitude, according to Audubon. But here they are, right in my own backyard, saving me a birding trip which I’d never take in this weather.
House Finches eating the remaining fruits on trees. Apparently not just for the food, but the drink. Never thought how birds in winter get their water from, since everything’s frozen. The snow, of course! Here they are taking in the snow. Not very clear picture, but you can see the snow on their beaks if you enlarge the pic. Trust me, they were feasting on the snow.
The other day, I took these photos as I saw a group of birds perched high on some tall trees in a distance. I heard their electrifying trills. Yes, Waxwings! But in the winter, the Cedar Waxwings have all flown away. What we have here are the Bohemian Waxwings, the vagabonds of birds, kind of rare for some birders located in the eastern and southern parts of North America:
They are more plump in the body than the Cedar Waxwings, but with the same spiky crest and yellow-tipped tail. Don’t have anything closer than these photos as they were so far away.
These birds still sing in -20’sC weather, plus the chickadees and the nuthatches, the downy woodpeckers too. Not to mention the ducks.
Life goes on.
Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.
Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.
However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.
To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.
Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.
The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.
Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.
There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.
Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.
Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.
The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples
What do you do when almost everything attractive is closed except the essentials which you’ve already stocked up for the next week or two? To the woods I go, to find relief for cabin fever and a breath of fresh air despite the crisp -12C (10F) weather on this winter day.
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
–– Robert Frost
Frost is right. A dust of snow can dispel a stuffy mood. Also birds, mosaic of dried leaves on the ground, wavy patterns of the icy river, chickadees and downies on branches are some other natural remedies.
Or this bluejay in the tree which occupied me for half an hour or so. Why, such a common bird, you might say. But for me, not so, not on a cold, winter day.
Or, this swirling pattern of frost on water, where I spotted a goldeneye swimming by, oblivious to the cold. Don’t see her? Right by the rock:
But it’s this scene that mesmerized me most, entry to an imaginary place, where the escapist in me can flee:
For the first 30 minutes before the title comes out on screen, viewers follow almost in real time a home birth gone awry. They witness the intense moments of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) giving birth, the contractions, the unbearable pain, the difficult labor, the birth, the joy, and then the tragedy. That first section is absorbing and the shaky handheld camera increases the intensity.
The movie is inspired by screenwriter Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó’s real-life experience of losing a baby during pregnancy. In Pieces of a Woman, the duo depict not just the court of legal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, and within the family, generational and relational adversary when faced with the loss of a baby.
Martha and her partner Sean (Shia Labeouf) maintains a precarious relationship to start. She dresses chicly, works in a modern tower and has her own office; he works in construction outdoor building a bridge. It’s not so much their jobs but the incompatible personalities between them. Martha is soft spoken and reflective; Sean, sporting a bushy beard, is boorish (his own word, albeit sarcastically) and physically abusive. The dashed hope of a child tears apart an already fragile relationship.
Kirby doesn’t let her previous role as Princess Margaret in The Crown S1 & 2 define her. Here as Martha, she is everywoman expecting her first baby, mixing hope with trepidation. Reticent in her demeanour, after the death of her newborn, she withdraws deeper into her own self, grieving in her own way, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a woman. She is the main attraction of the movie.
Labeouf’s psyche is a mixed bag too, but with different elements. His hopeful excitement of imminent fatherhood is obvious, but is it another aspect of domination? Considering Labeouf’s real-life legal charges against him of domestic violence and sexual battery, it’s eery to watch him befitting the role of a needy abuser.
It is the veteran actor Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the overbearing mother of Martha’s that bring out the two main characters. Burstyn plays Elizabeth, domineering and combative. The beginning scene sets the tone as she buys a minivan for Martha and Sean. Not a good thing to let your mother-in-law buy you a new car, or the mother of your girlfriend, same thing. Elizabeth despises Sean and belittles her own daughter. So much for the symbol of the big gift.
Elizabeth’s reaction to the tragic home birth is to push Martha to sue the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for negligence. In her view, that’s the way to get justice and compensation. While the legal trial leads to an unexpected resolution at the end, the climax of the movie comes a little earlier, in Elizabeth’s classy, tastefully decorated home. It highlights the court of domestic interactions, setting up a scene reminiscence of August: Osage County (2013). Elizabeth’s survival and combative instinct challenges Martha’s reticence. This is one of the two best scenes of the whole movie. The other during the court recess of the trial, but I won’t elaborate or it will be a spoiler.
Here in Elizabeth’s home where the family has gathered, the camera follows Martha in a long take as she moves agitatedly around the living and dining room, a woman reacting to pieces of casual conversations aiming at making the mood light, but which soon crescendos into a full blown mother-daughter confrontation.
Well acted and absorbing. A takeaway could be that, experience is subjective and personal; what one generation has gone through and even lessons learned can best be shared and hopefully inspire but can’t be transferred or expected to elicit the same results in the next generation. Amidst the tension, Elizabeth relays her wartime moment of resilience when as a young child, how a doctor held her weak body up by her feet and said, “if she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.” And, she did. Now that she’s an ageing mother, a new lesson to learn might be to realize that such an experience cannot be imposed on her daughter, for Martha has her own way to deal with grief and ‘lift her head’, as shown at the conclusion of the trial.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Pieces of a Woman won the Arca Cinema Giovani Award and Vanessa Kirby Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Now streaming on Netflix.