At start of spring I open a trench in the ground. I put into it the winter’s accumulation of paper, pages I do not want to read again, useless words, fragments, errors. And I put into it the contents of the outhouse: light of the sun, growth of the ground, finished with one of their journeys. To the sky, to the wind, then, and to the faithful trees, I confess my sins: that I have not been happy enough, considering my good luck; have listened to too much noise, have been inattentive to wonders, have lusted after praise. And then upon the gathered refuse of mind and body, I close the trench, folding shut again the dark, the deathless earth. Beneath that seal the old escapes into the new.
Last year on this day, March 8, I listed films directed by women in recent years. A month later, Chloe Zhao became the second woman in the 93 year history of the Oscars to win Best Director with Nomadland. And this year, in the upcoming 94th Academy Awards on March 27, two of the ten Best Picture nominees are directed by women, Jane Campion’s ThePower of the Dog and Sian Heder’s CODA.
This may look bright and hopefully the trend will hold. After all, women first directed films in 1896! I wrote about that in my March 8 post last year. However, the latest data aren’t that promising. According to the Celluloid Ceiling Report (Figure 2) published in January 2022, the percentage of women directors working on the top 100 films decreased from a record high of 16% in 2020 to 12% in 2021.
For this March 8, 2022, here’s a new list of some upcoming movies directed by women. There are, needless to say, many more women working behind the scenes as film editors, script writers, cinematographers, production designers, sound professionals, costume and makeup artists, composers, casting directors, producers… all striving to break through the celluloid ceiling.
Aline directed by Valérie Lemercier, a fictionalized biopic of Céline Dion.
Where the Crawdads Sing directed by Olivia Newman, adaptation of the popular novel by Delia Owens.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Dream, A Song a documentary co-directed by Dayna Goldfine
She Saiddirected by Maria Schrader, based on the book that chronicles the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of a movement. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan star.
Barbie directed by Greta Gerwig, the cast that brings a doll to life includes Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Simu Liu.
Turning Red directed by Domee Shi, whose animated short Bao won her an Oscar in 2019. Sandra Oh, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell lend their voice and talents.
Don’t Worry Darling directed by Olivia Wilde, who has been called ‘a modern-day renaissance woman’. Attractive cast includes Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody directed by Kasi Lemmons, acclaimed director of Harriet (2019) turns her attention to depict the life of Whitney Houston.
The Stars at Noon directed by Claire Denis, who just won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Director at Berlinale 2022. Adaptation of the 1986 novel by Denis Johnson.
Catherine, Called Birdy directed by Lena Dunham, based on the children’s novel by Karen Cushman, on the adventures of a 14 year-old girl in medieval England.
The Mother directed by Niki Caro, who has helmed an interesting variety of works like Mulan (2020), The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), Whale Rider (2002). An action thriller, The Mother stars Jennifer Lopez and Joseph Fiennes.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s classic novel.
Persuasion directed by Carrie Cracknell. Another Jane Austen classic to be transposed onto screen coming out this year.
Rosaline directed by Karen Maine. A comedic take on Romeo and Juliet from the POV of Rosaline Capulet, Juliet’s cousin and Romeo’s first love.
Among the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, one is Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature Film. That Drive My Car is nominated also in the Best Picture category as well as in Directing and Adapted Screenplay is a major boost for director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The most recent precedent would be the South Korean feature Parasite in 2020.
The following is my review of Drive My Car, a screen adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost it in full here on Ripple Effects.
Ever since his five-hour epic Happy Hour garnered accolades in 2015, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has continued to fascinate juries in the festival circuit. During a pandemic year, he made two features, both screened to high acclaims. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the 2021 Silver Berlin Bear Jury Prize and DriveMy Car swept Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.
Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s creative and imaginative extension of Haruki Murakami’s minimal short story included in his collection Men Without Women. Two individuals unlikely to meet in ordinary circumstances, bare their soul to each other, one a stage actor and director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the other, a young female driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). The conversations that take place in the car prompt them to confront their own past.
The film opens with a long backstory. Kafuku has a loving and intimate relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer. Her story ideas come while the couple is making love. Both being in the arts, they support each other in an intimate way until one day Kafuku comes home unexpectedly and finds Oto in bed with another man. Kafuku walks back out quietly. The next day, Oto suggests they talk that night when he returns from work. Deeply hurt but fear for the collapse of their marriage, he delays coming home. When he finally gets home late that night he finds Oto has collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She dies later without regaining consciousness.
This prologue takes 40 minutes and that’s when the introductory credits appear on screen. Hamaguchi will take another two hours and more to tell the rest of his story which begins two years after Oto’s death. Despite the three-hour duration, the film captivates with thought provoking parallels between art and life and reveals the characters’ existential anguish with a quiet poignancy.
Kafuku loves to drive his fire red Saab 900. He practices his lines while driving by interacting with dialogues recorded by his late wife Oto. As this main section of the movie begins, Kafuku is driving to Hiroshima to direct Anthon Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival. However, upon arrival, he is disappointed to learn that due to insurance stipulations, he is not allowed to drive but the festival has provided him with a driver to drive his car. She is twenty-three year old Misaki (Toko Miura).
The audition soon takes place. Kafuku has chosen actors from various Asian countries who deliver their lines in their native language including Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean sign language used in a most poignant way by a deaf actress. With such a cast, this performance of Uncle Vanya will be a powerful display of shared humanity.
Coming to the audition is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku recognizes him right away as the man he had seen making love to his wife in his home. To Takatsuki’s surprise, Kafuku casts him in the lead role. The two start to have talks with each other outside of the rehearsal, the subject they share: Oto.
The parallel between the lines in Uncle Vanya Kafuku practices in the car and his real-life predicament is startling, and poignantly so. If he had returned home earlier that fateful night he might have been able to save Oto. Seized with guilt and grief, he recites the lines, ‘I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them? … If only I could live the rest of my life in some new way!’
A play within a film and lines corresponding to the real-life situation of the character is an intriguing way to tell a story. The mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping. Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) comes to mind. As Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practices the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she is actually describing her own predicament.
Reticent and appearing nonchalant, driver Misaki has a scarred childhood. Hearing the lines spoken in the car and as Kafuku talks about his guilt and loss, she too opens up. Two characters with a shattered past is thrown into each other’s internal turmoil, thus begins the healing of wounds and a step towards recovery. The aerial shot of the red Saab smoothly moving on the highway could well be a metaphor for the tranquility and freedom both occupants are seeking desperately.
A twist in the plot makes Takatsuki unable to perform in the play. Kafuku takes up the role as Vanya, a miserable man despondent with life. In a cathartic, final scene of the play, the lines are delivered in silence as the deaf actress playing Sonya encourages Vanya with her expressive sign language. The audience in the theatre, close up on Misaki, read the subtitles above the stage: ‘We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way…’ As she finishes her speech pointing to eternal rest when they see God, the stage lights dim, with an oil lamp offering a tiny flicker of flame.
The last few minutes of the epilogue wraps the feature with a gratifying end.
December 2021 was a hectic month, thus the delay of this year-end wrap up. 2021 was another unusual year. No in-person at a theatre to watch movies, but there were several excellent titles. Glad I could watch them online. As for books, I surprised myself as I counted over 50 books from my list on Goodreads, albeit I admit, many of them are audiobooks.
Here are the Top Ripples of my 2021. Links are to my reviews.
The Dig – I’d left this one out on my last list by (a huge) mistake, now corrected. This is one of the best movies I’ve watched during the pandemic. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in their unusual roles based on a true, historic event. Beautifully shot.
Passing – Both book and movie adaptation are very well done.
Nomadland – Oscar 2021 Best Picture, Director and Actress. Both book and film are inspiring.
Minari – Autobiographical pic of Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung. Yuh-Jung Youn won the Oscar Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing the eccentric grandma.
The Father – Anthony Hopkins nails it as the father afflicted with dementia and deservedly won his second Oscar at 84, the oldest Acting Oscar winner.
Promising Young Woman – Excellent Oscar winning screenplay by debut director Emerald Fennell. But it’s Carey Mulligan’s performance that speaks most poignantly for promising young women.
Drive My Car – Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has created a play within a play while adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami. How ingenious is that? Japan’s official entry to the coming 94th Academy Awards. (Link to my review on Asian American Press)
Two of my favourite songs, one for the Season, one for always. May your Christmas be a little light that shineth and a spark of hope.
Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Whispering hope Oh, how welcome Thy voice Making my heart In its sorrow rejoice
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.
Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.
Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)
That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.
The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”
Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)
To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.
The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.
Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.
Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.
The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.
What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.
Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.
I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.
The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.
Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.
What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.
Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.
Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)
Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.
Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.
I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.
Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.
In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:
“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).
Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.
The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.
The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.
Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.
The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).
Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.
Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:
“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).
To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.
Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. 2021 marks a significant turn as we’re slowly coming out of a pandemic, albeit still riding through bumps and waves, currently the fourth one for us. Amidst the collective chaos and discontent, I still have much to be thankful for, learning to count my blessings despite what we’ve gone through.
However, I admit I’m in a nostalgic mode. I check back to my previous posts and revisit some experiences of my Thanksgiving Past.
I just came back from New York City attending the NYFF. While the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center was the venue, I’d the chance of visiting many places that were unforgettable for me. Like, Central Park:
Monet’s Water Lilies at MoMA:
And Luke’s lobster roll by Brooklyn Bridge:
The end of a 5-day escapade to London where I’d bagged loads of fond memories. While the streets of Cambridge were like a ready movie set,
this one was the actual setting… a dejected William (Hugh Grant) walking through the four seasons in Notting Hill’s Portobello Market, to the sad tune of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine when She’s Gone’:
and the blue door where his fame-crazed flatmate Spike (Rhys Ifans) opens to a crowd of paparazzi, in his just-out-of-bed attire:
Around that time I was driving through New England where many indelible images had lodged in my mind. Along the country roads of New Hampshire, it was a bit early to see red. The primary colour appeared to be orange:
As I scrolled through past photos, it’s this orange that seized and brought me back to Thanksgiving Present. On Thanksgiving Day, 2012, I was at Iona Beach, Richmond, B.C. These lines and image are from my post then:
And finally, I saw the sun slide down the distant sky. What a sight to wrap up Thanksgiving. If anything’s common… it’s Common Grace:
To all my Canadian readers, Happy Thanksgiving!
To my neighbours to the south, early Thanksgiving greetings!
Sometimes you stumble upon a place looking for something, unaware that there are so much more to explore. Last week I drove out to British Columbia, our neighbour province to the west. While in Surrey, I searched for birding spots in the area and decided on driving down to Blackie Spit by the coast.
The Spit is named after an early settler Walter Blackie. Way before Walter and his fellow Europeans arrived here, the place was called “Tsee-wahk” Point, indigenous language for “strawberry” or “elderberry”, a place rich in food. Their saying goes: “When the tide is out, my table is set.”
Blackie Spit is located where inlets from Boundary Bay flow in. Zooming out would be the Strait of Georgia:
I followed a path that put me inside a fairytale:
In such a setting, I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble upon a Great Blue Heron but I was as I looked across a stream…
and just a few steps away along the path, another one. This time, right in front of me up on a tree:
Never have I seen a GBH so up close and personal, and not flying away even when I stepped right underneath it to take a picture. No cropping of the photo here.
As I walked further along the path, absorbing the stunning view of the outlet, I found yet another one. Three GBH in a row… I’ll call that a good birding day.
Or, was I dream walking? Can you see it too?
You found it?
Of course, there must be an abundance of food for them here, as the indigenous people had known a long time ago. I could see why when I saw this mural. I was in salmon habitat: