‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: from Novella to Screen

Truman Capote’s novella was published in 1958. The setting is 1940’s New York City. Social currents have flowed by, and reading the book now in 2021 makes it interesting to compare back to the era when Capote wrote. Some might feel the currents fast changing, some would lament at the slow pace when women and people from a different cultural background still strive for equal standing in our society today.

WWII is the background and Capote’s handling of a Japanese character is relatively gracious, for he never uses negative descriptions about his appearance; Mr. Yunioshi only shouts when irritated.

While the novella reflects the social culture and values of the time, what’s seemingly timeless is the iconic character, Holly Golightly, a café society gal of just around nineteen who has left indelible marks in the hearts of many men. Holly is a tough gal in a man’s world, and shows she has the iron will of doing things on her own terms; although sadly, she depends on men for her livelihood.

The unnamed narrator of the novella probably knows Holly best among all her numerous society acquaintances. He is a writer and her upstairs neighbour in the NYC East Seventies brownstone. The gal is a walking contradiction. He’s intrigued at first, in love––albeit unrequitedly––towards the end. Here’s how Capote describes his enigmatic yet mesmerizing protagonist Holly Golightly:

She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox… the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she’d made them ornamental by admitting them boldly. Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter; for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling. (44)

But it’s not merely her appearance that pulls at the heartstrings of the narrator’s, it’s what’s hidden. She’d clam up just the moment when you think she’s ready for ‘volunteering intimate information’. She doesn’t know what she wants, “when I find out you’ll be the first to know.” She avoids the zoo, ‘couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage,’ yet she’s always looking for a place she can call home. Once she finds it, she’ll give her cat a name. Her card says it all: Miss Holly Golightly, Traveling.

Tolkien had famously said, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ Here’s a case of one who wanders and is lost yet enjoys it immensely.

Is she for real, or a phony? To be exact, she’s been called a real phony… that is, she believes in her own makeover of herself. Capote reveals Holly’s past history in a poignant way. Best to savour his storytelling first hand. But Holly, whoever she is now, will remain so and go on her diverting life path. The past is exactly where she has left it. At the story’s end, the narrator reminisces with bar owner Joe Bell whom he and Holly used to patronize. Both men know Holly will continue with her ‘travelling’––this time all the way to Brazil––and lament her leaving them behind with mere elusive memories.

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Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) looking into the window at Tiffany’s

Directed by Blake Edwards and screenplay by George Axelrod, Capote’s novella is transposed on screen in 1961 as a romantic comedy, a launching pad for a career takeoff for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Capote’s intended female for the role was Marilyn Monroe. Apparently the filmmakers had an eye for the right one. In the movie, Hepburn is an almost exact fit corresponding to Capote’s descriptions, better yet, more mature and alluring, and the stutter replaced by witty eloquence. What more, Hepburn shows the confidence and independence Holly exudes which many thought Monroe could not have matched.

However, a casting that’s a discredit to an otherwise delightful movie is Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, the neighbour on the top floor of the brownstone and whose bell Holly rings whenever she loses her front door key, often in the deep of night. In the book, Capote only mentions him shouting down from his top floor, but never describes his appearances. The movie makes a caricature out of Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive portrayal thick with demeaning stereotyped features and mannerism.

Film historian David Thomson refers Rooney’s performance as ‘toxically racist’, and further writes that ‘some people on that picture––the screenwriter George Axelrod, notably––fought with Blake Edwards, the director, about the characterization, but Edwards paid no heed.’ (Thomson, 402)

Notwithstanding, the movie has left audiences with some memorable moments and Hepburn had become an icon. The narrator is given a name and personality; George Peppard plays Paul with matching charm. His quiet and sensible demeanor is a sturdy support to Holly and a needed check to her unbridled exuberance. The pair save each other from their own foibles and failings, bringing the film to a happy romcom ending unlike the book.

The most memorable moment from the film is probably the tune that lingers after all these years. Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ is sung longingly by Holly as she sits on the sill of the open window by the fire escape strumming a guitar. Incidentally, that was a scene at first intended to be cut out if not for Hepburn’s vigorous insistence to keep it in the movie. And we’re all glad that the strong-willed Holly Golightly had her way.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, first published by Random House, NY, 1958.

David Thomson’s quote is taken from his book The Big Screen, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2012.

This wraps up Novellas in November at Ripple Effects. Once again, I thank Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting. Do check out others’ reviews.

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Novellas in November on Ripple Effects, from book to screen:

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Passing by Nella Larsen

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, from Novella to Screen

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.

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Tessa Thompson as Irene (L) and Ruth Negga as Clare in Passing, film adaptation written and directed by Rebecca Hall

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

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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.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald: from Novella to Movie

Florence Green is a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough, in Suffolk, England, 1959. She has been a resident there for some years but stays close to herself. While not being an outsider per se, her life in Hardborough has been unnoticeable, that is, until her plan of opening a bookshop begins to materialize.

Florence acquires and moves into a dilapidated building called The Old House. The front operates as a bookshop while she lives in the back. Innocuous enough, until she is confronted by the rich and powerful Mrs. Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough.” Mrs. Gamart makes it clear that she’d always wanted to turn the Old House into an arts centre. For seven years it has remained empty and now that Florence has purchased it to open her bookshop does Mrs. Gamart want to replace it with her own plan.

Mrs. Gamart’s wilful obstruction of Florence’s bookshop draws out the infirm recluse Mr. Brundish, a book lover and whose family has roots in Hardborough for generations. In nothing short of an heroic act, he ventures out to confront the powerful socialite.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, only one year after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, and in 1979, she won the prize with Offshore. Hermione Lee in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald writes in the intro:

She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.

In just 118 pages, Fitzgerald tells a story that’s as calm as the surface of this inert fishing town, while underneath the quiet facade are bubbling currents of emotions and wilful malice. Not that Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like books, she wants an arts centre with speakers giving talks and live music playing. What’s brewing inside her could well be the urge for power play, to control, or just plain malice.

Fitzgerald is an astute observer of human foibles. Take Milo, a writer (or merely aspiring?) who seems to be helpful to Florence, Fitzgerald has these words for him:

Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.

Even in such a small community, there’s acute disparity, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the grammar school and the Technical, and consequently, success and failure. Take Christine, the eleven year-old who helps Florence in her shop. As her mother says, failing to enter grammar school and heading to the Technical would mean the difference between rising above her lot or ‘pegging laundry all her life’.

But this is also a comedy of manners. Fitzgerald reveals her characters with refreshing and amusing ways. At the beginning of the book, Florence encounters Mr. Raven, who needs help with his horse’s teeth. Here’s the excerpt:

‘Now, Mrs. Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.’

‘How do you know?’ she asked.

‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’

So, how does a relatively uneventful story about a small-town widow opening a bookshop transpose onto the screen? Spanish director Isabel Coixet wrote the screenplay and took the liberty to create some dramatic moments for the visual medium.

First off, she lets a narrator tell the story in the form of voiceover. The immediate effect is a more intimate storytelling, but the most crucial effect comes at the end. I’m withholding any revealing, for I don’t want to spill out spoilers; I can say that is quite effective.

Coixet has an experienced cast on her hands. Emily Mortimer plays Florences Green with a respectful loyalty to the book protagonist. And the added scene by the sea with old Mr. Brundish offers a moving moment. Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Brundish is poignant. Unfortunately, he’s not given much screen time. Neither is Patricia Clarkson, who aptly delivers Mrs. Gamart’s snobbery with chilling resolves.

The single plot line focuses more on Florence and her young helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) rather than having Florence establish deeper relational interplay with the adult characters. While the aesthetics are appealing, the overall story needs some spicing up. The twist at the end is effective but the spark comes just a little too late. However, if you’re a fan of period dramas, or anyone in the cast, check this out as it can offer two calm and relaxing hours.

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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, first edition published in the UK by Gerald Duckworth, 1978, 118 pages. I read the ebook via OverDrive.

Check out what others are reading in this Novellas in November 2021 event at Rebecca’s and Cathy’s blogs.

NOVNOV posts on Ripple Effects:

My List of Novellas in November and their Screen Adaptations

Nomadland: From Book to Screen

It first started with journalist Jessica Bruder camping in a tent then later in a van for three winters in the desert around Quartzsite, Arizona. Her plan was to get acquainted with a group of modern-day nomads living in RV’s, vans, and car campers. Bruder’s three-year research resulted in the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twentieth-first Century (2017), an eye-opening account of a fringe population growing in large numbers after the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of the nomads were once middle-class Americans who had lost their jobs, homes, investments and retirement savings during the economic crisis.

Bob Wells, who started the website CheapRVLiving.com in 2005, is the guru of nomadic living. But it was after the 2008 economic catastrophe that he saw the traffic to his site ‘exploded’. Linda May and Swankie are two of these nomads in their 60’s and 70’s. To sustain their living, many become migrant workers doing seasonal work and hard labour in Amazon warehouses to earn minimal wages.

Bruder’s book is rich in data and testimonials. While offering an in-depth look at how the nomads not only survive on bare essentials but how they find community, friendship and support, at the same time, it is a scathing social commentary on the human toll of the 2008 financial meltdown, and a stark revealing of exploitive employment of a vulnerable, elderly labor force.

What follows is intriguing. One of my first questions to ask Frances McDormand if I had the chance to interview her would be why she thought Bruder’s non-fiction work, though exceptional, would make a good movie so much so that she acquired its film rights.

Cut to the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2017, where the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring McDormand was screened. Stepping out of a press junket for her film, McDormand went to catch another TIFF selection, The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao. After watching, she knew who she’d want to direct the movie adaptation of Nomadland.

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Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Photo by Joshua James Richards

Adhering to her first two features, Songs my Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, director Chloé Zhao casts real-life, non-professionals to play a cinematic version of themselves. She shot her debut work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and have Lakota youth tell their story. For The Rider, about a cowboy facing the end of his career after a fall during a rodeo resulting in a traumatic head injury, Zhao casts a real life bronco who’d suffered a similar tragedy to play himself.

Zhao’s signature naturalistic rendering is how she styles the adaptation of Nomadland. Real life nomads in Bruder’s book, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells among others all appear as themselves, enhancing authenticity. To develop a narrative vein, Zhao creates two fictional characters, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn), to weave among them.

In the film, an unadorned McDormand, spot-on with her weary and dishevelled looks as Fern, mingles and makes friends with the nomads, learning the ropes of self-sufficiency. With Linda May, she works as a camp host and as a warehouse worker with Amazon’s CamperForce. Through the dialogues, some of Bruder’s researched data and testimonials flow out naturally.

Born in Beijing, China, Zhao was uprooted when just a teenager to travel to the UK for school and later to the US. She graduated from college in Massachusetts, after that attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is now living in California. Her diasporic experience is itself a kind of a nomadic journey. It could well be that her liminal identity, an insider-outsider multiplicity, has equipped her with a unique point of view as a filmmaker.

Shot in five Western States on location where nomads frequent, the film Nomadland is essentially about one woman’s journey towards healing as she takes to the road. Fern and her husband Bo had long worked for US Gypsum and built their home and community in the company town Empire, Nevada. When Bo died of cancer, and later the whole town disappeared from the map as US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 after 88 years, Fern stayed in her company house till the very end. There’s this poignant dialogue when she talks to Bob Wells:

“Bo never knew his parents and we never had kids. If I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed… It’s like my dad used to say: ‘What’s remembered lives.’ ”

From a non-fiction book on nomads surviving America, Zhao has turned it into a humanistic, personal narrative of loss and healing. While the book is more explicit in its critique and social commentary, Zhao’s film exudes a tone of acceptance, as her focus is not so much on societal ills or corporate greed but the humanity of the characters.

The camera follows Fern in her attempts to connect her past with her present, as she travels down the road to an unknown future. Shot in the magic hour of dawn and dusk and accompanied by the pensive score by Ludovico Einaudi (The Father, 2020), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, 2017) knows when to capture Nature’s golden light to elicit depth and allow time for thoughts. While nature is a healer––and we see many soul-stirring scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick––Fern’s journey to recovery rests in the memories of the ones she still loves even though they have all departed.

And with that, Zhao invokes The Bard. In the latter part of the film, Fern meets a young drifter Derek again and they chat. Derek is lost for words when writing letters to his girlfriend. Fern suggests he uses a poem, and upon his prompting, she shares the one she used as her wedding vow, Sonnet 18. When two characters sitting on gravel ground beside a makeshift fire for warmth adjacent a highway and one recites a Shakespearean love sonnet, it seems incompatible with the setting. But then, why would it be?

What follows is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film. From memory, Fern starts: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” As she goes on, the camera shifts to the evening sky and finally rests on Fern in the van looking at slides of her dad, mom, sister, and herself as a young child as we hear her voice-over continuing with the sonnet towards the last lines: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thereafter, the camera follows Fern to the redwood forest, where her outstretched arms can only span a tiny portion of a tree trunk, herself minuscule in comparison.

Thus she drives on to a destination unknown. And ‘this’ that gives life could be two-fold. Nature and her memories of loved ones, not a sonnet written with words but one etched deep in her heart.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards, among 230 other wins internationally.

Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) 273 pp., hardcover. The book won Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This article also posted on Shiny New Books. Do check them out.

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Other Related Ripple Reviews:

Nomadland: A Book Review

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

‘The Father’ depicts dementia in suspenseful realism

Dementia is a land where its inhabitants can never come out, and visitors can only look in from the outside. To add to the isolation, they speak a different language outsiders don’t understand.

In his role as an 80-year-old man afflicted with dementia in The Father, Anthony Hopkins has shown he’s an apt interpreter of that language. With his astute performance, the iconic British actor becomes the oldest person to win an acting Oscar this April, his second after The Silence of the Lamb in 1992.

The Father is based on the 2012 play Le Père by French playwright director Florian Zeller. It received the Molière Award for Best Play in 2014. The English version was translated by Christopher Hampton in 2016 and performed on Broadway. Hampton and Zeller co-wrote the adaptation to film. At this year’s Academy Awards, they won Best Adapted Screenplay. This is Hampton’s second Oscar win for writing; his first was for Dangerous Liaison in 1988. And for Zeller, his debut feature garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

Zeller’s intriguing way of storytelling lets viewers experience vicariously what a dementia sufferer goes through. First off, it is uncanny that Hopkins’s character is named Anthony. The film is shot from his point-of-view.

The editing by Yorgos Lamprinos strings together seamlessly the conflicting perspectives of Anthony’s: the mingling of memories, the confusion of happenings and imagination, the loss of a timeframe for past events, the distortion of present realities, and perhaps most disturbing for those close to him: unrecognizable faces. Describing how Zeller achieve these effects will be like giving out spoilers. I’ll just say this, The Father is like the Rashomon of dementia.

Zeller’s film is cinematic realism depicting the condition of dementia. The confused, bewildered look of Hopkins in close ups is accompanied by repetitive, eerie music, rendering the scenes suspenseful, not far from a Hitchcockian thriller. When one has lost the capacity of one’s brain, it is a scary experience. Anthony knows his way down the hallway to his room, but is this his flat? Where’s his watch, again? And, what happened to that painting that used to be hanging on the wall? The cast of seven brings out a powerful narrative in just 97 minutes.

Another realistic portrayal is Olivia Colman as the daughter Anne, who has to convince her father that he needs help. She struggles with the conflict between filial love and personal freedom, her husband (Rufus Sewell) does not make things easier for her either. And to complicate matter further, Anne is not her father’s favourite but her younger sister Lucy…

We’ve had a couple of excellent films on the subject of aging and dementia in the past. Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley who adapted Alice Munro’s short story is about a wife stricken by Alzheimer’s, and Michael Heneke’s Amour (2012) narrates an aging husband caring for his debilitated wife after her stroke, both received Oscar nods. Zeller has contributed to this repertoire of films with a perspective from the point-of view of the patient, adding to it a daughter’s internal conflicts.

No matter how much Anne tries to keep her father living with her, his condition needs professional care and monitoring, something she finds hard to get through to a dementia patient who is determined to be self-reliant. Colman’s performance is sensitive and moving.   

A very clever man, this father hasn’t totally lost it. The scene where he meets his new caregiver Laura (Imogen Poots) in Anne’s home shows how sharp he can still be, and not just Anthony the character, but Hopkins the actor, who is in his top form.

Original music is by Ludovico Einaudi (Nomadland, 2020) whose score reflects the mental state of Anthony’s, enhancing the cinematic effects. The opera music at the beginning of the film which Anthony is listening to, and later reprises is from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. The poignant piece is his link to the person he once was, the song entitled Je crois entendre encore: ‘I believe I still hear.’

Eventually, the inevitable question has to be asked by Anthony, an antithesis to a cathartic ending: ‘Who exactly am I?’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Away From Her

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

And When Did You Last See Your Father

‘Minari’: The Little Seed that Could

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.

MINARI_00195_R Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

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.

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

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

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I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.

‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life

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

Top Ripples 2020

This is the most unusual year… I’ve read and listened to more books than I’ve watched feature films. Actually, this is probably the year that I’ve watched the least number of movies. I haven’t gone to the theatre since March nor attended any film festivals in person, but am most gratified by the few titles I watched online. Two particularly stand out, the first two spots of my very short Top Ripple list for 2020.

Movies

1. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt

A fresh take on the subject of friendship, set in 1820’s Oregon among fur trappers and opportunists, with the arrival of a dairy cow as the inciting incident. Monetary gain is no match for selfless loyalty in human relations. A moving tale of an unlikely friendship, the cinematography augmenting the enjoyment. It has also prompted me to look up the recipe for Fruit Clafoutis. Adapted from the book Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, who had inspired Kelly Reichardt’s previous films. I won’t miss any of her works, poignant richness belying the minimal, naturalistic renderings. Full review to come.

2. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao

Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland features Frances McDormand as a widow who chooses to live in the community of modern nomads, van and RV dwellers in the Western States of America. Zhao is a master of realistic filmmaking. Nomadland is shot in situ among these older itinerant workers called ‘Camperforce’. A revealing docudrama with stunning cinematography and thought-provoking perspective on the essence of living. My review on Ripple Effects and Vague Visages.

3. Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn

One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his passing in April this year at 81. A Korean War veteran strikes up friendship with a lonely eight-year-old boy. Here’s an excerpt from my review on AAPress: Driveways shows us the power of caring human relationships and the change love can bring, yet painfully unfurls the precariousness of life. On a large existential canvas, it paints with personal, relatable strokes.

4. House of Hummingbird, directed by Bora Kim

Based on Kim’s encounters growing up in South Korea, the drama is a coming-of-age story of a teenage school girl in a male-dominated family. Young Eun-hee has to live with parental discords, deal with sibling bullying, and face a health issue and a precarious future all alone, but is fortunate to find a mentor in a teacher. Sensitive directing and nuanced performance. My review on AAPress.

Books

For the ones published in the year 2020, here are my Top Ripples. Links to my reviews:

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani

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The following are some Worthy Mentions, not all 2020 books or TV, but all have made an impression in my isolated mind this year as I binged on them without needing to snack on chips and sodas. That says a lot.

Normal People (TV Mini-Series, 2020) – Based on the 2018 book by Sally Rooney. A taste of ‘millennial literature’ and adaptation. I first listened to the audiobook, found it absorbing. Then watched the series and then read the book again, this time, word by word. Available to stream on CBC GEM and Hulu.

The Morning Show (2019) – Didn’t realize Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon can be so intense. Streamed on Apple TV+

The Crown (2020) – Season 4. Wonder how the Royal Family reacted to this scandalous take on the Charles, Camilla, & Diana affairs. Or, maybe just me… no surprise to them. On Netflix.

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) – The chess moves might be intriguing, but the overall pace can be more riveting if the TV Mini-Series is cut short by two or three episodes. On Netflix.

Defending Jacob (2020) – When parental love and truth collide. After watching the series on Apple TV+, I went directly to the source material, the 2012 novel by William Landay, a fascinating psychological suspense-thriller. After that went on to read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh… the hazard of parenting.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder – the non-fiction book that inspired Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand to make the movie, one of the front runners for next year’s Oscars. McDormand will likely get a Best Actress nom and hopefully, Zhao and the film will also be honored.

Turning: A Swimming Memoir (2017) by Jessica J. Lee – Lee is a newly emerged voice of nature writing à la memoirist. Coming from a fusion of cultural and geographical background: Canada, Taiwan, Britain, Germany, the environmental historian offers personal and fresh takes relevant in our contemporary society of multiplicity.

****

‘Defending Jacob’: When Love and Truth Collide

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Chris Evans in ‘Defending Jacob’

I usually read the book before watching its adaptation. When the reverse occurs, it’s because the movie or TV series is so absorbing that it leads me to explore how the original story is written and more importantly, how it ends.

Defending Jacob is a 2012 crime novel written by award-winning author William Landay. The story is character-driven and deals with issues such as the essence of parental love, nature vs. nurture, certainty and doubts. Without giving out any spoilers, I can say that the ending of the book is a darker reality while the TV adaptation offers a glimmer of light.

One morning in the quiet town of Newton, MA, a 14 year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, is found stabbed to death in a park on his way to school. Another 14 year-old schoolmate Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is later charged with first degree murder and tried as an adult according to the law of the State.

What turns this from just another murder mystery into a captivating 8-episode TV mini-series is the character depiction and the intriguing perspectives it presents. Parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery) are totally loving and devoted to their only child Jacob, but their inner voices differ.

Andy, an assistant DA who is involved in the investigation initially, is convinced of his son’s innocence. While equally fervent in her love, as the trial reveals some incriminating evidence against Jacob, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to doubt and is willing to seek the truth, even if it’s devastating.

Does love for your child mean unequivocal loyalty and trust? Is doubt a form of betrayal? Do genes determine actions? What about family background and upbringing, nature or nurture? And above all, can you know a person fully? Your spouse? Your child?

The eight episodes are not too long to explore these issues. I finished them in two days. Then right away to the book. After that, rewatched again. What first drew me to the series was Michelle Dockery. Yes, I’m always curious to see the post-Downton transfiguration of the cast… Lily James, Dan Matthews, and others. Dockery’s performance is effective and convincing here. Playing opposite the highly popular Chris Evans, they make an admirable couple, albeit maybe ten years younger than the book’s characters.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob is mystifying, not giving viewers any clues to his inner self, which is effective in a way so we can sense his parents’ frustration. Unlike Kevin (Ezra Miller) who instigates a school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Jacob doesn’t appear to be a monster or the devil incarnate. His innocent look elevates the suspense. How much do we actually know our children? How much can we know?

Supporting cast is equally judicious. Cherry Jones as Jacob’s lawyer Joanna Klein is an apt choice and portrayal, as well as Detective Duffy (Betty Gabriel), instead of the male characters in the book. J. K. Simmons is eerily convincing as the grandfather, a figure Andy tries to bury in his memory. Jacob’s classmate Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) deserves a mention for her natural poise, an altered and a more fully developed character from the book.

This I disagree with some prominent critics: it is not too long. The 421 page book works well as a novel. The 8 episodes work well as an elaboration and interpretative performance of the novel. Those too impatient to go through them might have missed some fine details. The side stories are necessary to bring out the characters and give actors their chances of more fleshed-out, nuanced performance. Every episode moves the story forward with its smooth editing.

The ending of the mini-series offers a different scenario in contrast to the book. It’s a softer landing, which is acceptable but not as powerful and intense as the book’s harsher reality. The creator/screenwriter could have been tough enough to follow the book, as Landay’s plotting is remarkable. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the story development remain intact overall. Defending Jacob is a highly watchable and riveting adaptation.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Defending Jacob is created by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, now playing on Apple TV+

New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. Kerry Brown/Netflix

‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.

Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.

First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.

Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.

This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?

Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.

Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.

The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.

[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix

‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.

Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.

What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.

Episode 1 – Mark Rylance

From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.

Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.

Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.

Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter

While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


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My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.

Related Posts on the Pacific Front in WWII:

WWII Comfort Women Speak Out in The Apology

The Railway Man: Movie Review

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

Canada Reads 2018: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

‘The Booksellers’ is a Film for Book Lovers

Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.

Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.

As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.

The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.

Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.


At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.

Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.  

Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”

Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.

Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.  

Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.

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A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.

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An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.

Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.

Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.

A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

I watched this on CBC Gem. If you’re outside Canada, here’s a link to where you can watch it at home.

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