‘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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‘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 … Continue reading ‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

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Books to Screen 2020 and Beyond

As things go these days, uncertainties abound as to when movies will come out and in what way, big or small screen. So, for those who like to read before you leap, summer’s the best time to catch up with some of these books before their adaptations are released.


Hillbilly ElegyHillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

The runaway bestseller of 2016 is now an upcoming movie on Netflix, directed by Ron Howard. Born and raised a ‘hillbilly’ in Ohio, Vance’s memoir narrates his struggles to arrive at Yale Law School, a personal victory over poverty and a dysfunctional family and culture. He shares insights as an insider of an impoverished social sector. Screenplay by Oscar-nominated Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, 2017). Early Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards and Amy Adams a possible nom.

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Deep WaterDeep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith is no stranger to fans of suspense and psychological thrillers with Carol (2015), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951). Deep Water (first pub. 1957) is another marital suspense thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, who’d given us Fatal Attraction (1987), Unfaithful (2002) and the like. So, we know it’s in good hands. Gone Girl‘s Ben Affleck should be quite familiar with playing such genre, add in Ana de Armas, who’s superb in Knives Out, this one should be a thrilling escape.

The Last DuelThe Last Duel by Eric Jager

The historical novel is The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, sounds like a sensational movie subject. Author is Eric Jager, medieval literature prof at UCLA. Director is the iconic Ridley Scott, who has brought us numerous big screen epics, Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Alien (1979, 2017), just to name a few. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon co-write and co-star, with Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame also in.


9 Perfect StrangersNine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Another TV series (Hulu) from popular Australian author Liane Moriarty whose Big Little Lies has been turned into two successful, star-studded Seasons on HBO. Nine strangers meet at a wellness resort dealing with their own issues and discovering secrets behind the place. Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy co-star. Moriarty has written 8 novels, so far, 5 of which are in various stages of development for the screen.


NomadlandNomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Nowadays you hear a lot about migrant workers. Back in the time after the Great Recession, there were workers living like nomads in their trailers and vans, travelling across the western states to look for work. Bruder’s book is about one such ‘workampers’, a woman in her sixties who becomes a nomad worker after losing her home. Frances McDormand stars. Written for the screen and directed by Chloé Zhao, who gave us the soulful The Rider (2017).


ShirleyShirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Based on the second novel by Merrell published in 2014. Shirley here refers to the American horror/suspense writer Shirley Jackson, played by Elisabeth Moss. The story’s about a graduate student Fred and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) move in to live with professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic teaching at Bennington College and his wife Shirley Jackson. Drama ensues when the characters interplay in their peculiar relational dynamics. Directed by Josephine Decker.

Normal PeopleNormal People by Sally Rooney

Irish millennial lit turned TV. And you thought the upstairs-downstairs kind of stories happen only in Downton Abbey. Rooney’s acclaimed book is about the clandestine romance between rich gal Marianne and Connell whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. The 12 episode TV series adaptation is affective and well performed by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal under the helms of Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) and Hetti Macdonald (Howards End, 2017) On Hulu, BBC3, and CBC Gem now.

Mothering SundayMothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Just announced. Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift’s novel will be adapted into film with a stellar British cast. Mothering Sunday was a day given to domestic servants time off so they could go back home to visit their mother and family. Again, a clandestine romance between two young people of different classes. Eva Husson (Hanna, 2020) directs onscreen royalty Olivia Coleman (QEII in The Crown), Colin Firth (KGVI in The King’s Speech), Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown), and Odessa Young. 

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Recent Movies and Series Directed by Women

Yesterday while driving I heard the stirring theme music of the movie The Piano (1993) played on CBC Radio 2. Memories flooded my mind. I recalled watching it in the movie theatre way back then. A deaf-mute unable to speak but can overwhelm others as she plays the piano to express herself.

I thought of Jane Campion, writer/director of the film, marvelled at her skills in conveying thoughts and emotions via the visual medium, and thought of other women directors who’d helmed many of my favourite films. I’ve had two previous posts on Women Directors here and here. Now taking stock mentally of the recent movies and series I’ve watched on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy while home-staying, I notice several of them are created and/or directed by women.

The Piano

Consider the following list with my capsule reviews an update of my previous Women Directors posts.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Amazon Prime) – Directed by Marielle Heller 

Director Heller and the screenwriters transport Mr. Roger’s child-friendly, essential human wisdom to realistic, adult situations. The film isn’t so much about Mr. Rogers but the real-life story of journalist Tom Junod’s life-changing encounters with Fred Rogers for a magazine assignment. Tom Hanks is ideal as Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys is effective in playing journalist Lloyd Vogel.

Who’s Matthew Rhys, you might ask? I highly recommend you watch “The Americans” series. Or, if you’re an Austen spinoffs fan, he’s Mr. Darcy in the mini-series “Death Comes to Pemberley”, adaptation of the novel by P. D. James. And, if you were around to watch the original Raymond Burr detective series on TV, the Wales-born actor is the new Perry Mason in our time.

Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime) – Created and screenplay by Liz Tigelaar, Directors Lynn Shelton and Nzingha Stewart. 

The 8-Episode mini-series is the screen adaptation of Asian American novelist Celeste Ng’s second novel. My full book review can be found here. The thematic elements of race, motherhood, family secrets, clashes of generations and values are visualized and made more acute as Kerry Washington is cast as an African-American artist playing against Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Richardson, the gatekeeper of the white upper-middle-class community of Shaker Heights, OH. The artist Mia Warren in Ng’s novel isn’t black, but turning her into one makes the conflict of the story more timely and pressing.

Four episodes are directed by Lynn Shelton who sadly died in May, 2020. Another female director Nzingha Stewart helmed two.

Never have I Ever (Netflix) – Created by Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling. Directors Linda Mendoza and Anu Valia 

Here’s a recent trend that’s encouraging. Movies and series are created to feature minority cultures in America. The talented Mindy Kaling, who wrote the screenplay and co-starred with Emma Thompson in Late Night (2019) plus many other credits, created this comedy series about high school girl Devi’s experience growing up Indian-American, something Kaling knows full well. Many LOL situations and dialogues throughout the ten episodes. Kaling scouted Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Mississauga, ON, Canada, to play Devi. A fresh look into the multi-cultural humanity that our North American population comprises. In recent years we talk a lot about representation. This is a humorous and realistic look into a vibrant sector.

The Half of It (Netflix) – Directed by Alice Wu

Here’s another lens to look into our younger generation growing up bi-cultural. The full length feature directed by Chinese-American Alice Wu is this year’s Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Narrative Feature winner. A shy academic ace, Ellie Chu, earns her pocket money from writing essays for her fellow classmates. When one day, she’s recruited by the school jock Paul Munsky to be a ghost writer of poetic love letters to a girl he tries to date, Ellie begins to feel a moral dilemma. The characterization and storyline make this feature a contemporary twist on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Humor is situational with some poignant scenes, making the film all the more enjoyable.

Unorthodox (Netflix) – Created by Anna Winger, Directed by Maria Schrader

Inspired by the memoir of Deborah Feldman, who broke away from her strict Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and escaped to Berlin where she changed into a new persona and started a different life. I haven’t read the memoir but I know the four-part mini-series take the liberty to re-imagine how she goes about changing her life while in Berlin. The series is captivating as viewers are introduced to the Hasidic, male-dominated and authoritarian community. Again, there are many cultural sectors in our society and through films we get to know a little bit more of how others live and the struggles they go through.

Ophelia (Netflix) – Directed by Claire McCarthy

Adaptation of the book by Lisa Klein, screenplay by Semi Chellas, Ophelia is a re-imagined story of what happened in the royal castle of Elsinore and in particular, Hamlet’s sweetheart. Lots of liberty in tweaking and twisting but still interesting to watch, albeit a lightweight Hamlet compared to the original. Notable cast includes Naomi Watts as Gertrude, Clive Owen as Claudius. Hamlet is played by George MacKay before his titular role in the WWII movie 1917, and Ophelia is Star War‘s Rey Daisy Ridley.

Hamlet (Kanopy) – Film Direction by Margaret Williams, London Stage Direction by Sarah Frankcom

A filmed recording of the play performed in Royal Exchange, Manchester. This Hamlet is a fresh take with Maxine Peake as the emotionally devastated and revengeful Prince of Denmark. Only after watching that I Google search to find the first female to play Hamlet dates back to 1796 in London Drury Lane, then 1820 in New York. Several others had followed since. But this is my first time watching. Maxine Peake’s performance almost instantly cast away all my preset feelings. She’s high-octane energy; her voice, physical stage presence totally captivate, convincing yet delicate. She’s herself and not an impersonator. Modern costume makes it more natural and, love her haircut. Peake makes me look at her not as a female taking up a male role, but a superb actor playing the ‘Everest of roles’.

More Films by Female Directors

Let’s continue to celebrate women beyond just one day or a weekend.

Previously on Ripple, I posted a list of my favorite films that happened to be directed by women. Here’s another list, not a personal favourite list but one just to show the variety of movies female directors have helmed, to shatter the myth and misconception that some might hold: ‘if we leave it to them, they’ll only churn out chick flicks.’

In alphabetical order, not ranked, director and year released in brackets, a list to hopefully inform, remind, and maybe surprise. There are many more, of course, but I’ll just stop at 65. How many have you seen? Which other ones you’d like to add?

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, 2019)

A Thousand Suns (Mati Diop, 2013)

A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, 2018)

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

The Arch (Cecile Tang Shu Shuen, 1970)

The Assistant (Kitty Green, 2020)

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)

         Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)

Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)

Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018)

Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, 2019)

Captain Marvel's Carol Danvers

Charlie’s Angels (Elizabeth Banks, 2019)

Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)

Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis co-direct, 2012)

Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Frozen / Forzen II (Jennifer Lee co-directs, 2013 / 2019)

High Life (Claire Denis, 2018)

The Hitch-hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)

Late Night (Nisha Ganatra, 2019)

Leave no Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

The Matrix / Reloaded (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999 / 2003)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann, 2014)

Money Monster (Jodie Foster, 2016)
..

Jodie Foster directs

 

Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

Mulan (Niki Caro, 2020)

Mustang (Deniz Ganze Ergüven, 2015)

My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979)

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2009)

Pay It Forward (Mimi Leder, 2000)

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)

Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

…….The Prince of Tides (Barbra Streisand, 1991)

Queen and Slim (Melina Matsoukas, 2019)

Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmüller, 1975)

Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014)

selma-bridge

Shrek (Vicky Jenson co-directs, 2001)

Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, 2003)

The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996)

The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)

Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2012)

Washington Square (Agnieszka Holland, 1997)

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002)

What Women Want (Nancy Meyers, 2000)

Winter’s Bones (Debra Granik, 2010)

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

The Zookeeper’s Wife (Niki Caro, 2017)

 

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Women Directors of My Favorite Films

In 92 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director:

Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2017).

How many of them had won? One. Kathryn Bigelow in 2010.

Does that mean there aren’t many women directors around? Definitely not. It just reveals how things are for these artists striving under the glass ceiling. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research is a good frame of reference for annual facts and trend of women in the film industry. According to their newest study entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,300 Top Films from 2007 to 2019” (Jan. 2020), female directors of top-grossing films reached a 13 year high in 2019: 10.6%, breaking an average of just 4.8% throughout the past 12 years. Maybe studios have begun to see women can be trusted to make profitable movies after all.

Yet, how many women are nominated for Best Director in the 2020 Academy Awards?

None.

This is not a post of protest, nor of analysis, but of reminiscence. I’ve made a mental inventory of some of my favorite films, ones that have stirred some ripples in the Pond, and found many of them are directed by women. Their works might not have made it to the ‘top-grossing’ list… but, this just shows where my interests lie.

Varda by Agnes
Agnès Varda in the director’s chair. Photo Courtesy: TIFF19

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Here they are in alphabetical order, with my favorite films bolded. Links are to my reviews:

Kathryn BigelowThe Hurt Locker (2008, Best Picture Oscar, Best Director), Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Bigelow is the only female to have won an Oscar in Directing. She has shown that when a woman takes on a military movie, she can master the conflicts both external and within.

Jane Campion – The New Zealand director is one of the five women in Oscar history to be nominated for Directing. The Piano (1993) is visually stunning and bold in its depiction of the yearnings of the human heart. Campion is the first (and only, so far) woman to have won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes with this film. Bright Star (2009) is a lyrical portrayal of English poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne before his untimely death at 25. A beautiful tapestry weaving together the visual and the word.

Nora Ephron – I miss Nora Ephron. It seems with her passing in 2012, romantic comedies aren’t the same anymore. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) will remain iconic from a period that still valued face-to-face meeting over the telephone or emails. And for some reasons, Meg Ryan seems to have gone out of sorts too. Hopefully she’ll make a come-back like Renée Zellweger did with Judy (2019).

Sarah GavronBrick Lane (2007) prompted my interest in the British director with her focus on a Bangladeshi wife in London; Suffragette (2015) depicts women’s personal struggles against a monumental period of British social history, but Rocks (2019) is the gripping, down-to-earth drama following a black teenage girl being left alone to fend for herself and take care of her little brother when their single mom deserts them, achingly real.

Greta GerwigLittle Women (2019) is a production that I’d enjoyed far more than Lady Bird (2017) for which Gerwig got a Best Director Oscar nom in 2018. It’s plain snubbing of her achievement in this year’s Academy Awards where the slate of Directing nominees are all males. Recognized at the Oscars or not, Gerwig’s Little Women will remain a definitive and worthy contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.

Mia Hansen-Løve – In Things to Come (2016), the French actor-turned-director Hansen-Løve presents a woman at the crossroads of life. Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy professor whose husband leaves her for a younger woman, while her elderly mother with dementia needs her constant care, her publisher finds her text book no more relevant, and her two children have grown and lead lives of their own. What are the things to come for her?

Mira NairThe Namesake (2006) is the movie adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel. A delightful and humane look at the generation gap within an immigrant family from India, and the clash the son has to face being caught between his present American life and his cultural roots.

Sarah Polley – Polley adapts Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s short story for the film Away from Her (2006). At age 27, the Canadian actor-turned-director wrote the screenplay of an elderly couple facing separation as the Alzheimer stricken wife has to move away to live in a care home. Polley’s directorial debut sent veteran British star Julie Christie to the Academy Awards as a Best Actress nominee, and Polley herself for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Dee ReesMudbound (2007) is the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel set in the American South at the end of WWII. Two military men, one white, Jamie, and one black, Ronsel, came back from Europe’s war zone to their home in Mississippi, each faces a different predicament. And for Ronsel, a decorated soldier who had fought under General Patton, home is a totally new battlefield.

Kelly Reichardt – Reichardt’s styling is naturalistic, casual but nuanced. Certain Women (2016) is a triptych of three short stories by Maile Meloy. Against the vast landscape of Montana, lives can be very ordinary, but Reichardt shows there’s no ordinary life. Similarly, Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a simple narrative about a young woman looking for work drifting through the Pacific Northwest with her dog Lucy. Reichardt has major stars in her cast who all look very comfortable being anonymous.

Lone Scherfig ­– Scherfig’s forte is her pleasant styling even when depicting a troubling story. Their Finest (2016) is England in her darkest hour during the Blitz in WWII but with the mood of a romantic comedy. And in 2009, Scherfig tells the story of an innocent teenage girl and her parents being duped by a man in An Education (2009). Carey Mulligan in her breakout role, landing her with a BAFTA win and an Oscar nom for Best Actress.

Agnès Varda – In her last film shortly before her death in 2019, Varda by Agnès, the French New Wave icon stated three crucial concepts in her filmmaking: Inspiration (the why), Creation (the how), and Sharing. The soft-spoken but astute artist has left us with a treasure trove of works, albeit not readily accessible in N. America. I’ve been able to watch several, including my favorites Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Faces Places (2017).

Lulu Wang – The premise of the Chinese American director’s real-life family experience in The Farewell (2019) could be shocking to Western viewers, but that just shows the divides separating us who are framed by different cultures: to tell or not to tell an elderly family member of her terminal illness diagnosis. What Wang has ingeniously achieved in her film is to bridge the chasm separating the two sides with a human touch that transcends borders. Amazing feat.

Chloé Zhao – I hope this is a new trend, that is, let Asian Americans, or any underrepresented Americans of various cultural roots, to have the chance to showcase deserving works. The Rider (2018) is a poetic narrative of a contemporary cowboy–a rodeo bronco rider– recovering from debilitating head injury. Chinese American director Zhao is an unlikely person to tell the story; yet this is her vision after befriending the Sioux community in a South Dakota reservation.

 

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‘Downhill’: Faux Majeure

Here’s a quote I’ll use again and again, from South-Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech for Parasite winning Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film award in January:

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Downhill

Downhill is a case in point. If one is willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier called subtitles (they are in English, mind you), one will be amazed how true and powerful and entertaining the Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is, and that watching the Ruben Östlund directed original would likely reap the most enjoyment and provoke some deep thoughts. Maybe an American version isn’t needed to begin with.

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with the Oscar nominated Jesse Armstrong as co-writer, if they’re to make an American version, there could have been potential for a fresh take. Force Majeure‘s literal meaning is a superior force, an unavoidable, overtaking power. Here’s the premise of the movie, which in itself is an interesting case for discussion:

A well-intentioned family holiday at a ski resort for bonding is shattered as the result of an instinctive reaction on the part of the husband/father. It happens when a controlled avalanche strikes a little too close to his family sitting at an outdoor dining table, he runs for his life while his wife huddles and protects their two boys. What follows is the underlying current of discontent and anger of the wife’s surfacing like a geyser. 

The producers must have seen the potential comedy in such a scenario. One of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning comedy actor, and a fan of the original Swedish film. Playing the wife Billie, Dreyfus shows she has her heart in it. In several scenes, she’s effective in bringing out Billie’s frustration. However, the issues of the movie are beyond her control, a real case of force majeure?

First is the casting of the husband Pete with Will Ferrell. Surely, for a comedy, Ferrell would be a natural choice. Call it irony, the indifferent demeanor Ferrell gives out as an actor in this movie actually parallels the husband Pete’s attitude, as if he’s being dragged up the ski hill. Have cell, will travel. His phone is what he’s resorted to as companion on a family holiday that he’s not ready to go on.

Pete’s work friend Zach (Zach Woods) and his girl friend Rosie (Zoe Chao) happen to be near where they vacation, so Pete secretly texts them to come over to their hotel in the guise that it’s their initiative to drop in. Here’s a pair of supporting roles if given more to play can add substance and context to the thin storyline, but they don’t have the chance. In the original Force Majeure, this couple plays a crucial part, especially with Kristofer Hivju’s performance as Mats, who’s full of humor. Hivju is also in Downhill, but only with a very minor role as the ski hill manager.

Other issues pervade, the script could well be a major one. As a comedy, there’s not much for laughs. It presents a problem but doesn’t delve into it; a comedy doesn’t mean superficial treatments. As a film that’s supposed to capture a sporting vacation, it lacks energy. No wonder the kids are so bored. The title is prophetic; I’m sure that’s unintentional. 

If an American version is the intent, then make it truly American, tell an American marriage story with this scenario. With Downhill, however, the European location, the ski resort surroundings, the actual scene of the controlled avalanche mishap, the set design, even the teeth-brushing moments in the hotel bathroom look almost the same as the Swedish original, other than the fact that the actors speak English. With its loose editing and scattered thematic matters, Downhill looks more like a parody of Force Majeure than a stand-alone comedy on its own.

 

~ ~ Ripples 

 

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CLICK HERE to read my review of Force Majeure

 

‘Parasite’ Makes Oscar History and more…

This morning you’d probably waken up to Parasites everywhere. What is Parasite, you might ask. In case you’re one of those who avoids watching the perennial award show of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, after 92 years, they have opened their door and allowed a non-English film to win the top prize, Best Picture of the Year.

 

Parasite
Looking for Wi-Fi connection are brother and sister Woo-sik Choi and So-dam Park, a scene in “Parasite”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Last night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the South Korean, genre-bending dark comedy directed by Bong Joon Ho garnered four Oscars. Other than Best Picture, it won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. Haven’t heard of Best International Feature Film either? It’s the new name for the old category Best Foreign Language Film, an effort to dispel the awkwardness of the term ‘Foreign’. Even within the continent of North America, many languages are spoken.

Previously, no non-English film had ever won Oscar Best Picture even though nominated: Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1974 Oscar), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Michael Haneke’s Armour (2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2019). Parasite makes a monumental win in Oscars’ 92 years history by being the first non-English language film to reach the highest prize.

By opening this door, the Academy begins to reach out to tap its potential, international stature. The closest I can think of is Cannes. The most prestigious film festival in the world that takes place annually in the small resort town in the French Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur has maintained its status of bestowing the highest cinematic accolades across national borders.

About borders, director Bong’s vision is global: “I don’t think it’s necessary to separate all the borders of division if we pursue the beauty of cinema.” Referring to Chinese American filmmaker Lulu Wang’s Indie Spirit Best Picture win for her film The Farewell just the day before the Oscars, Bong said: “Like Lulu, we just all make movies.”

When it comes to breaking down barriers, Bong’s own acceptance speech at the Golden Globes is succinct and spot-on. As translator Sharon Choi relayed in English, the director’s commentary on differences and the language that unites is inspiring for our divisive world:

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. Just being nominated along with fellow amazing international filmmakers was a huge honor.” And in English, he added, “I think we use only one language: the cinema.”

I’ve had the chance to enjoy some refreshing cross-border collaborations at Film Festivals. Just to name a few from last year:

Frankie – the Cannes nominated American Ira Sachs directing two veterans of the cinema, French actress Isabelle Huppert and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson in a film shot in Portugal. Language: English, French, Portuguese.

To the Ends of the Earth – Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa shot the film in Uzbekistan (a former Soviet republic close to the Eurasian border) on a commission to celebrate the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Uzbekistan. Language: Japanese, Uzbek

The Truth Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda directing the legendary Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke (no need to declare nationality, I think you got the idea) Language: French, English

Maybe the art of cinema could well be the lingua franca to unite us all.

 

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Related posts on Ripple Effects:

My review of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell

 

 

Unfilmed Novels

That’s a Jeopardy! category a few days ago in the Double Jeopardy round. Here are the five questions, or answers, rather. Five novels that have not been adapted to screen. For purists, their stance would be Leave Them Unfilmed. But just for interests sake, let’s see which novels Jeopardy! has included:

Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger

Rumor has it that Salinger didn’t like movies. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” But no, Salinger didn’t say that, it’s Holden Caulfield who said that. In a letter Salinger had written, he denied that stance.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon

Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys was turned into a movie, but his Pulitzer winning The Amazing Adventures has not.

Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco

It’s been reported that the Italian philosopher/writer Umberto Eco wasn’t pleased with the movie adaptation of his earlier novel The Name of the Rose, so he said no more even though Stanley Kubrick had shown interest to work on Foucault’s Pendulum.

Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy

Many have attempted but to no avail, including Tommy Lee Jones, James Franco, Ridley Scott, and even Michael Haneke. It’s been noted that BM is more violent than No Country for Old Men. Do we need another one now, in our state of global chaos?

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole

Although Hollywood had shown interest, even actors had been attached, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel remains unfilmed. Those of you who have read it, can you suggest some reasons why this is so.

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A Note to Jeopardy Question Writers: Can’t you think of at least one novel from a woman author, just for the balance of your questions, let alone representation?

To my Ripple Readers: Can you suggest some good titles that have yet been turned into film? Old classic or current? Any books that you’d like to see transported to the big screen, in the helm of a worthy director with a talented cast and crew to bring out a deserving production?

Here are a few I can think of, some may have TV versions, but a full length, cinematic feature on the big screen is yet to be done:

Middlemarch by George Eliot (An old attempt years ago, but nothing realized. Now, let’s have Greta Gerwig write and direct. After Little Women, she just might have a fresh take on this classic.)

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Lila / Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

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Your two pebbles?

 

 

 

More Movie Adaptations 2020

Previously on Ripple, a list of movie adaptations coming out this year was posted. Here are a few more, not only from books, but Broadway musicals (not as scary as Cats, so give them a try), and a Chinese poem.
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Emma by Jane Austen

EMMA

While there have been many TV miniseries, and the modern-day spinoff, Clueless (1995), the only full-length movie adaptation of Austen’s Emma is back in 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow as the heroine, Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley, and Toni Collette, Harriet Smith. The 2020 version stars Anya Taylor-Joy, born the year the last Emma adaptation came out. This 24 year-old rising star has already won acting awards in the US, UK, and at Cannes. This updated version sees Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, Bill Nighy, Mr. Woodhouse, and Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown, S3) as Mr. Elton. Do you want to see a new full-length movie adaptation of Emma? Or another Austen book?

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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THE TURN OF THE SCREW
Movie title is The Turning, perhaps to take in the vibes of the horror classic The Shining. Why this genre is so popular is beyond me. Back in 1898 when Henry James published his horror novella as a serial, he couldn’t have imagined his writing would be turned into a motion picture projected on a huge screen 122 years later. Directed by Canadian photographer/filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, who’d made music videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, and many others. Her disturbing style just might be what James had intended. Cast includes TV Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project, 2017).


Deep Water
by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water

Highsmith specialized in psychological thrillers. Several of her novels had been adapted into successful movies: Strangers on a Train (1951), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Carol (2015). Coming out this year is a marital thriller that Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn had identified as her favorite book and is, in her words, “a thriller about a suburban couple bent on mutual destruction.” Ben Affleck (Gone Girl, 2014) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out, 2019) star. Directed by Adrian Lyne, also a marital thriller specialist, whose works include Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), and Unfaithful (2002), which was the last film he directed until now.
..

 

 

West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

WEST SIDE STORY POSTER (1).jpegSteven Spielberg directs this remake of the Bernstein/Sondheim musical (1957) and the 1961 Jerome Robin/Robert Wise movie for our time. In Dec. 2020, we’ll witness a new version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A cast of 130+ will join the Spielberg team with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, 2012) and cinematographer, 2-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, 1998 and Schindler’s List, 1993). Additional new music by David Newman. Ansel Elgort plays Tony; Maria is Rachel Zegler, chosen from 30,000 auditioned. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie, also stars in this remake.

 

 

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In the Heights
by Lin-Manuel Miranda

IN THE HEIGHTS.jpeg

Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights, Miranda’s breakout musical that won 4 Tony Awards in 2008. The musical is based on the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who now writes the screenplay transposing it onto the big screen. Miranda stars in this story set in the Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in NYC. The movie is shot on location there. Directed by Jon M. Chu, whose Crazy Rich Asians became the summer sensation of 2018, showing Chu could create some spectacles. Would Miranda fans want to see a movie version of his works? In the Heights could well be a pilot project, as Hamilton the movie is currently in development.


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Mulan
, legendary heroine from “The Ballad of Mulan” (in Chinese: 木蘭辭)

Hua Mulan.jpeg

According to the legend described in the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan”, Hua Mulan (Chinese: 花木蘭) is a female warrior in China during the Northern Wei period (386-536). To fulfill the conscription for military service for every family and for love of her ageing father, Mulan disguised as a male to join the army in her father’s place to protect her country from their northern enemies, the Huns. The rhymed verses in “The Ballad” provide vivid descriptions of Mulan’s determination and how she goes to nearby towns to buy a horse, a saddle and a whip, equipping herself for military service. After 10 years of fighting, she comes home to her overjoyed parents a decorated military commander.

Disney had wielded its creative license to introduce imaginary characters and songs in its original 1998 animation. Now 22 years later, a live-action feature film carries the legend further, albeit with no place for an actual pet dragon, so, no Mushu. Helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife, 2017), it should be noted that all four screenwriters are non-Chinese. No matter, at least the heroine and her purpose is true to the source material. Top-notch Chinese stars are on board: Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, screen veteran Cheng Pei Pei, Tzi Ma from The Farewell, and Rosalind Chao from The Joy Luck Club, to name a few. Playing Mulan is multi-talented Liu Yifei who reportedly was selected after a five-continent search and auditioning a thousand candidates. Braced for a Westernized version of the age-old Chinese legend.

 

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Top Ripples of 2019 and the Decade

Best of the decade lists have been sprouting up everywhere now that we’re wrapping up  the second ten years of the 21st century. As Ripple Effects has been around for over 12 years now, I too have the privilege to post my own decade favourites, with links to my reviews. A disclaimer is, obviously, I can only rate films that I’ve seen. For 2019, I’ve yet to see 1917 and Bombshell.

But first off, before looking back to the decade, here’s the list of

Top Ripples of 2019:

  1. Little Women
  2. A Hidden Life
  3. Varda by Agnès
  4. An Elephant Sitting Still
  5. Pain and Glory
  6. The Farewell
  7. Parasite
  8. Marriage Story
  9. American Factory
  10. Rocks

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Top Ripples of the Decade:

  1.  The Tree of Life (2011) –– Director Terrence Malick’s visual treatise on life, death, and everything in between… and after.
    .
  2.  Roma (2018) –– Nothing’s too mundane for a filmmaker, especially with childhood memory. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical work that won him 3 Oscars, Best Directing, Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film.
    .
  3.  Ida (2013) –– Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s gripping depiction of a young woman’s choice of the sacred or the secular.
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  4.  An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) –– A last outcry of a young talent, the first and last masterpiece of Chinese writer/director Hu Bo who took his own life after making the film at age 29.
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  5. Little Women (2019) –– No matter what your previously held memory of the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic is, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century. Surely lots have to be left out in a 2 hr. movie; take it as a good prod to go read the book.
    .
  6.  A Hidden Life (2019) –– Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter gave up everything to stand by his conviction, refusing to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. Terrence Malick’s newest film is a meditation on the meaning of life, and death.
    .
  7.  Silence (2016) –– Martin Scorsese’s epic adaptation of Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s novel, a harsh and audacious look at the persecution of Christianity during 1600’s Japan. Similar to Malick’s A Hidden Life but depicts a totally different choice and outcome for its protagonist.
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  8.  Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) –– French director Olivier Assayas’s mesmerizing tale of being famous, ageing, becoming obsolete, and the young rising. Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart offer interesting interplay, but it’s Stewart who stands out.
    .
  9.  12 Years A Slave (2013) –– Two Brits takes over the American story: Director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Solomon Northup. I wrote this in my review: the subject matter may be ugly, but the medium depicting it can be artistically gratifying, thus, conveying the message with even greater potency and inspiration.
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  10.  Certain Women (2016) –– Director Kelly Reichardt has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. The seemingly mundaneness of life is actually the very essence of it. The women are what make this film quietly impressive: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristin Stewart.
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  11. Pain and Glory (2019) –– “The child is father of the man”, iconic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical sketch of his childhood, later life and career up to this point. Beautifully shot, a film for artists.
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  12. The Farewell (2019) –– Chinese American director Lulu Wang has put her family story on screen and captured the hearts of many, making Awkwafina the rising star this awards season. To tell, or not to tell, that is the question… and the answer is obvious depending on where you’re from.
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  13. Faces Places (2017) –– Agnes Varda at 89 goes on a road trip with photographer/artist JR, adorning dilapidated buildings and unlikely places with human portraits larger than life.
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  14. The Rider (2017) –– Chinese-American Chloé Zhao tells the rarely told story of a modern day cowboy’s existential crisis after he suffers a debilitating head injury. How she tells it is poetry on screen.
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  15. Arrival (2016) –– Admirable collaboration: French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s adapts Chinese American sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, rendered with sensitive performance by Amy Adams. A film packed full of ideas, condensed sentiments, yes, like poetry.
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  16. Frances Ha (2012) –– Noah Baumbach has created a character that’s a perfect fit for partner Greta Gerwig, an aspiring dancer trying to find her place in NYC. The scene of Frances running and dancing through the streets of NYC has become an archetype for freedom and exuberance. (Look for it at the beginning of Little Women)
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  17. Varda by Agnes (2019) – The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnes Varda had left us with an inspiring legacy. This is her summing up, her last work wherein she went through every film she’d made, commenting with valuable insights and wisdom.
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  18. Our Little Sister (2015) –– I’ve to say this could well be my favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda movie. Koreeda is a master in filming family relationships, reminiscent of Ozu but with contemporary scenarios. This is a heartwarming film for the unhurried heart to savour.
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  19. Life of Pi (2012) –– What Canadian author Yann Martel has succeeded in literary form, Ang Lee has realized in this visually stunning cinematic offering, filming what is considered the ‘unfilmable’. Aligned with its magical realism, Lee ventured into flashy 3D.
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  20. The Past (2013) –– Iranian Director Asghar Farhadi elicited some amazing
    performance with this absorbing story. The film came out two years after A Separation, his Oscar winning film. I’d enjoyed The Past more.
    .

 

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Other Top Ripples not on the above lists can be found on the sidebar. Click on the image to read my review.

 

 

 

 

‘Little Women’ is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.

LITTLE WOMEN (1)

So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.

The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.

Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.

The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War. A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.

The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.

A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.

Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:

And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.

In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:

Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.

The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth. 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Related Posts:

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

‘A Hidden Life’: A Film for the Season

For over 10 years at Ripple Effects around this time, I’ve a Christmas post entitled Reading the Season. That’s when I post a book or collection of poetry that I find relevant for Christmas. This year I’ve something different. It’s a film that could offer some quietude among the cacophony of the season.

I first saw A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s now showing in selective cities.

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Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler to fight for the Nazis in World War II, for he saw Hitler’s war unjust and evil.

A Hidden Life
Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

The title alludes to George Eliot’s ending of Middlemarch:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A quest for spiritual meaning is the signature of the reclusive director’s works. They are often expressed in whispered voiceovers from the characters, revealing their doubts and questions, anguish and insights.

Days of Heaven (1978) establishes Malick’s aesthetic style of using natural light to shoot his films, every frame exudes cinematic poetry. The Thin Red Line (1998) begins his signature whispering voiceovers to express inner thoughts and spiritual quests. But it’s The Tree of Life (2011) that makes such whispers monumental as Malick situates the microcosm of a Texan family within the cosmos, and asks questions of the Creator the problem of pain and death, the struggle with human nature, with love and hate, and despite all human failings, the presence of grace.

Since The Tree of Life, Malick has produced several ‘misses’, films that are not well received as they are elliptical and experimental but visionary no less. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) all point to one common quest: in the materialistic world of the rich and famous, what makes life meaningful? And, can true love be found?

A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick back to his form in a more traditional style of filmmaking, and more explicitly spiritual as he tells the story of a faithful, historic figure, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria. Before Germany’s ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) of his country, family life is blissful and easy for Franz. He farms the land among natural vistas, stays rooted in a close-knit community, happily fathers three young daughters, and is deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). The arrival of a conscription letter in 1943 changes everything.

Franz knows he cannot join Hitler’s military, but the refusal to do so means certain death and the risk of endangering his family. He struggles hard to deal with the dilemma and seeks guidance from his Catholic church, but his priest tells him patriotism is what’s demanded of him. His village folks ostracize him; the mayor urges him to comply with Hitler’s demand, for one traitor among them can endanger them all. But Franz stands his ground even with the consequence of execution, a stance reminiscent of the Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died under Nazis hands for refusing to let Hitler’s doctrine to supplant his church.

In this way, A Hidden Life offers an opposite stance different from Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. Here we have a courageous conscientious objector willing to suffer the loss of everything and the risk of harm to his family and kinsfolks in defying a ruthless ruler. A Hidden Life is a real-life testimonial of a believer while in the face of persecution, still refuses to step on the Nazi fumie to renounce his faith.

After incarcerated in the German military prison near Linz then transferred to Berlin to await trial, Franz is allowed to write one letter to Fani every month. The love the couple share in the film has its basis on these poignant letters which have since been compiled and published by Orbis Books. Franz’s absence from home brings Fani back-breaking hardships on top of social ostracizing. Her mother and sister come to live with her to offer whatever support they can give.

Capturing mainly natural light for his filming, Malick contrasts the idyllic family life in the beauty of the natural landscape of Franz’s home setting with the harshness of his imprisoned existence. What’s more tortuous though is his internal struggle. While in prison, his captor Captain Herder (Matthias Schoenaerts) says to him: “What purpose does your defiance serve? No one knows about you.” Yet Franz is convinced that his action isn’t to please others or to glorify himself, but to do what’s right in the eyes of his God. Franz’s own hidden spiritual life empowers him to stay strong.

In his trial, again he is being challenged: “Will anyone outside this court hear you? No one will be changed.” Yet he says nothing in his own defence, an allusion to the One who had stood trial in front of a ruler and said nothing in the face of death.

In a voiceover we hear these inner thoughts, Franz’s words to Fani:

“Time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, and why we live.”

There are plenty of quiet moments, long takes and slow pacing for viewers to think and ponder. The 174 minutes of screen time offers an opportune respite from the hustle and bustle of the Season, a quietude to evaluate, if you will, now that we’re at the end of another decade and in a time of tumultuous change.

The soul-stirring music is another reason to sit down in the theatre and quietly let the story unfold. Film composer James Newton Howard has created a full orchestral score complementing the cinematography, not only in capturing the beauty of the vistas but in his own words: “… to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.” Listen for the solo violin representing the sentiments of Franz and Fani, masterfully played by the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes.

What’s hidden could be more precious, like treasure in jars of clay. And these words came to mind as I give A Hidden Life further thoughts:

… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Reading the Season Posts:

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

For my review of The Tree of Life and Silence, click on the links embedded in the titles.