Up in the Trees

What I find walking in the woods can be redundant and mundane, that goes for my photos too. But looking up into the trees can be therapeutic psychologically, especially these days, not to mention beneficial for the neck muscles.

Mundane or unusual, here are some sightings during my walks in the past weeks.

You see them everywhere, their by-products littering your grounds. But the Canada Geese in my neck of the woods don’t gather at the Pond or on the ground, but high up on trees. I think they nest there too:

Another CG on tree

Here’s one taking the abode of a previous tenant, the owl family. How do their young come down from so high up? They’ll have to learn to fly first, just like other birds, another birder said when I asked. Or, the mother could carry them on their wings, my imagination added.

New Tenant

occupying the nest of the owls

A Robin, never too common for me, especially when I capture a handsome one:

Robin not common

One time, I saw this ball from afar:

Ball on tree

Walked closer and found this. Do porcupines nest on trees too, or just for naps? Or, is it something else? The next day I went back to look for it and it was gone.

Porcupine ball

Mundane or unusual, my curiosity is piqued walking the same paths year after year. This curious Yellow Warbler well represents my feelings:

Curious Yellow Warbler

Here’s another curious one:

Curiosity

In a previous post about the Yellow-rumped Warblers, I’d noted that the white-throated one is called the Myrtle Warbler of the East and far north, and the yellow-throated one the Audubon’s Warbler from the West. Just curious, what do you call this one with both white and yellow on the throat:

Yellow-rumped Hybrid

Curiosity in the mundane. Maybe that could get me out of bed on those days when I get too used to that stay home mandate.

.

***

Birding with Annie Dillard

This is not merely wishful thinking.

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek years ago. At this moment in time, with the pandemic and disruptions, it seems like what she describes in her book is a piece of Arcadia, a setting in a totally bygone era, idyllic, clean and pristine, and also something I’ve long swept to the back of my mind. Just this week, I’ve the chance to listen to the audio version of the book, read by the marvellous Tavia Gilbert, a very ‘Dillardy’ voice. Her narration prompted me to dig out my copy of Tinker Creek.

This time, Dillard’s nature writing meant much more to me. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t a birder, couldn’t even ID a chickadee. Now, though still with minimal knowledge, at least I know what bird it is she’s describing.

It’s her chapter entitled “Seeing” that grabs me most. Her words I must quote directly:

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair… the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift…

I know how hard it is to capture an oriole before it ‘fades into leaves’:

Oriole

For nature does reveal as well as conceal: Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.  They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged…

Even though I haven’t seen an Osage orange before, I know exactly what Dillard means by hundreds of blackbirds taking flight from one single tree. I’ve seen not blackbirds, but waxwings or starlings like that. As for our blackbirds, they usually gather at the Pond, solitary among cattails, seldom in flocks of hundreds:

RWBB

How I get what she means by nature reveals as well as conceals. Just a few days ago, I had both of these experiences.

I saw a pelican swimming peacefully on the Pond:

Pelican in serenity

Just as I went closer, she flew away. It happens a lot of times when I try to take bird photos:

Pelican Flying Away

And conversely, I also have a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do moment. Walking in the woods, I suddenly caught sight of something in a distance, a ghostlike appearance:

Distant finding

As I waded around fallen trunks and leaves to get closer to investigate, hopefully to get to the front to take a picture, I lost sight of it. Then suddenly, something huge close by me flew away. It was right beside me!

GB Fly away

GBH Fly 2

It was a Great Blue Heron. I’d never seen it in the woods perching on a tree, only by the water. Just as I didn’t expect it, I saw it, and just as I realized what it was, it disappeared.

Now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do, now-you-don’t again. “These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration,” Dillard writes. Too mundane to even mention? Far from it. “The grand nonchalance” of nature keeps us in a place of humility and evokes our need for sharper senses.

Yes, a better camera.

 

***

Easter Sunday Paradox

Light rising out of total darkness makes the most stark contrast.

I took this photo at sunrise two days ago. It wasn’t that dark in the environs but my camera pointing at the light source darkens everything else.

 

Rising Light

 

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

–– excerpt from The Valley of Vision

 

On that first Easter Sunday, the ultimate paradox came to pass, for without a willing death, there would not have been a resurrection.

He is risen!

***

 

HAPPY EASTER!

Thanks to the Quarantine Resource List from Alison Chino, I followed the link to her Trinity Aberdeen Pastor’s message from which the above prayer is quoted.

 

 

 

‘The Farewell’ transcends cultural borders to bring out the universal

When an elderly, beloved family member is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and has only three months to live, will you let her know the prognosis or hide it and spare her of fear and burden? Chinese-American director Lulu Wang has turned her real-life family experience into first, a radio program on “This American Life” (aptly entitled ‘In Defense of Ignorance’), and subsequently adapted it into a movie, The Farewell. The Chinese title is more direct: 別告訴她, “Don’t tell her.”

The-Farewell-movie-poster

In the film, the family decides not to tell their beloved matriarch grandmother, Nai Nai, (Shuzhen Zhao), about her health status. She’s living contentedly, doing her morning exercise with gusto, relatively independent, with her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) keeping a watchful eye on her.

To arrange for everyone to say farewell and see Grandma Nai Nai one last time, older son Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) and his family will return from Japan, staging a hasty wedding of their son Hao Hao (Han Chen) to his Japanese girlfriend of just three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Their plan is to have the celebration in the city where Nai Nai lives, Changchun.

Nai Nai’s younger son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and his wife Jian (Diana Lin) will go back from New York for the wedding. Such a ruse is not received well by their daughter Billi (Awkwafina), born in China but raised in America, who upholds the values of individual rights and transparency.

Easy, her parents tell her she doesn’t need to go as they are afraid her Americanized expressiveness will give it away the moment Nai Nai sees her face. Billi won’t stand for that either, for she loves her grandma, with whom she’d had a close bond as a child until she left for the U.S. at the age of six. She still keeps in touch with Nai Nai by phone with her passable Mandarin. So Billi goes to China on her own, a surprise for the whole family––a pleasant one for Nai Nai, but a precarious risk for everyone else.

Since its debut at Sundance early this year, The Farewell has been winning audience’s hearts. Wang’s film is greeted as another strong voice in the diversity movement within the movie industry, following the flagship crowd-pleaser Crazy Rich Asians last summer. With a mostly Chinese main cast, shot in Changchun and New York City, Wang’s feature aptly depicts the cultural clashes immigrants face when leaving their home and settling in the West, or the older, first generation with their America born or raised children.

The wide reception the movie has been garnering is a reflection that this kind of dilemmas or conflicts are not limited to one cultural group. The issues families face, illness and death, parenting our own elderly parents, resolving disagreements and maintaining relationships are but some universal experiences joining us all.

The Farewell is Wang’s second directorial work after her 2014 debut feature Posthumous. In this her sophomore film, looks like she has established a personal style of her own. The slow pacing depicts effectively the internal world of the characters. While the middle section feels a little bogged down, the ensemble performance of the whole cast soon lifts us up and lands us on a higher plane.

Awkwafina’s (a.k.a. Nora Lum) performance is spot-on in depicting the conflicting emotions Billi is riding through. It’s obvious she has found her niche and developed into a full-fledged actor who can carry a story soundly on her own. She has morphed from rapper to actor, from being just a sidekick in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians to a dramatic lead. Thanks to Wang’s script, Awkwafina has several cathartic, moving moments showcasing her skills. For this role, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and became the first actor of Asian descent to capture that top prize.

Humor is the key to the heartstrings of the audience, and Wang has splashed it throughout readily, however deadpan it may come in. While the subject matter is somber, the comedic elements are ubiquitous. Some may require discernment from the audience to laugh where it’s meant to laugh, and refrain from it when it’s meant to be serious; that’s an interesting observation I got as I sat in the theatre. Dramedy? Dark comedy? Light drama? Genre fusing no doubt.

The music of the film particularly stands out. The selections could well be influenced by Wang’s own classical music training before her filmmaking career. During the pivotal scene of the wedding banquet, the operatic aria “Caro Mio Ben” is performed (soundtrack sung by South Korean soprano Hyesang Park with piano accompaniment by Wang herself.) The longing tune alone captivates, but knowing the lyrics will add credit to the mindfulness of Wang’s selection: “Dearest, my beloved, believe me at least this much, without you, my heart languishes.”

Composer Alex Weston’s original score augments the emotional power of the story by weaving a soulful voice motif across the scenes, stirring up a reflective and poignant tone throughout. Indeed, the fusion of Western music in an Eastern culture is all realistic in our contemporary world, its purpose could well be drawing out the universal, uniting us all in our humanity.

Overall, the ingenuity of Wang’s feature has effectively bridged two seemingly dichotomized cultural views, the East and the West, regarding the serious issue of to tell, or not to tell when a beloved, elderly family member is diagnosed with terminal illness. In just 100 minutes of screen time, Wang has brought a contentious, ethical issue to a human level and wrapped it with heart. The Farewell is a worthy addition to a hopefully sustaining trend of diversity and representation in the film industry.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Urban Progress, The Wasteland and An Easter Thought

Many contemporary films from China showcased at Film Festivals in recent years tend to use the country’s fast-paced urban development as backdrop. This new wave of filmmakers situate their characters and tell their stories amidst dilapidated buildings marked for demolition, sometimes the whole community torn down to make way for new projects. In the name of progress, many are uprooted and displaced.

In Life After Life (2017), we see a village abandoned as its former residents have all moved to the city. In Dead Pigs (2018) we see the feisty owner of the last house in an urban community standing alone, refusing to sell to the developer. The acclaimed auteur Jia Zhangke’s Cannes winning A Touch of Sin (2013) follows desperate individuals wrestled down by the strong arms of economic progress and capitalistic greed. His latest “Ash is Purest White” (2018) may be of a crime genre but we see the protagonist being swept along the tumultuous torrents of technological change and urban development, seeking whatever humanness that remains.

The most haunting has to be the 2018 film by the talented, young director Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still. Hu parallels the desolation of the urban environs with the inner world of his characters: Despondent youths in a school bound for demolition, not that they have bright futures even if the school remains; aimless adults desperately seeking connection but ending in betrayal and loss; a grandfather facing gloomy days ahead as he’s cut off from his son’s family… Hu’s accusation of his society was astute and unsparing.

At one point in the film, The Wasteland is alluded to, certainly not only referring to the physical environs. That it is mentioned as a deadpan jest to make fun only exposes the indifference of the speaker to its meaning. Tragically life imitates art, Hu took his own life during the film’s post-production. He was 29.

Eliot wrote The Wasteland in the aftermath of WWI, lamenting the desolation and that dry, cracked piece of soil deep in the human soul, derelict and barren in the midst of post-war development and the loss of spirituality.

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

….

Cut to Easter. I’ve been pondering these seemingly unrelated ripples from films during this Easter weekend, at a place thousands of miles from home. Then came this Easter thought. When that stone was rolled away at the grave, the Son of God reversed the trajectory of the human race. With that ultimate miracle of the resurrection, He’d blown life into the dry stone that is the human heart, turned wasteland into fertile soil, opening up the way to save us from ourselves.

Herein lies hope.

***

Ripple Effects Turns a New Page in 2019

Ripple Effects has reached a new milestone. After almost twelve years in the blogosphere, Arti has finally fought off procrastination and taken up an upgraded version. From now on, there will be no ads even if you’re not a WordPress blogger visiting (let me know if you still see them). What more, there’s a new URL address to the Pond, aptly:

rippleeffects.reviews

 

But if you type in the old, longer one it will redirect you to the right place here at the Pond as well.

While birding is still my passion, I’ll be posting mostly film and book reviews on Ripple Effects. My avian friends will probably fly by during intermission.

Your two pebbles are welcome as before. Throw them in, stir up some ripples. As always, I hope you’ll find here a respite for quiet thoughts and prompting to some interesting viewing and reading. I await your visits.

***

Have you ever seen so many people lining up to go into a public library? It happened right here in my city, Calgary, Alberta, on November 1, 2018, when our New Central Library opened. 50,000 visitors in the first four days. Yes, there will be talks of books and movies here on Ripple Effects.

New Central Public Library, Calgary.jpg

The Calgary Central Library was one of Architectural Digest’s 12 most anticipated buildings opening in 2018. Check it out here.

***

 

Let ‘Things to Come’ be a Cooling Respite

July’s gone, but we’ll always have Paris.

There are many words I can use to describe the Paris born, veteran (here’s one of them) French actress Isabelle Huppert. Prolific, versatile, and age-defying. In 2016, two of her works came to prominence in the awards circuit, two features that show her in distinctly different roles that won her acclaims across the Atlantic. Playing a vigilant woman who schemingly fight back a rapist in her neighborhood in Elle, Huppert garnered a Best Actress Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

Things to Come

The other feature is Things to Come. Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy professor, a published academic writer and editor, a mother of two almost grown children, a wife, a daughter, and a woman at the crossroads in her life.

On the career and academic front, Nathalie’s just been told by her publisher that her textbook would no longer be needed. On the home front, her husband of 25 years, Heinz (André Macron), has just confessed to her that he’s seeing another woman and will be leaving Nathalie to live with his younger love. Even though on good terms with their parents, her two children have grown enough to move away from home. As a daughter, Nathalie has to deal with a dementia-afflicted mother (Edith Scob) who calls her cell phone even while she’s teaching, delusional and threatening suicide. What is Nathalie to do?

Here, I must mention another crucial figure in the production, and that’s director Mia Hansen-Løve, who won Best Director with this feature at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2016. At eighteen, Hansen-Løve was cast by French director Olivier Assayas and later starred in another of his works. Partnered with him for a while, she’d chosen her own path, studying philosophy, writing for the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema, and later, directing.

Daughter of two philosophy professors, Hansen-Løve’s preoccupation with intellectual discourse is apparent in Things to ComeIn an interview, she’d said, “… for me, cinema is nothing but another way to practice philosophy… cinema is a search for wisdom, a search for good and for beauty, like philosophy could have been a search for my parents.” The intellectual exploration of what’s good and Utopian predominates in Things to Come. The film is worth a second, or third viewing just to capture the dialogues.

While she may be tossed like a floating weed in the torrents of life, Nathalie enjoys the fruit of her labor in her former star pupil Fabien (Roman Kolinka), now a writer and activist. However, as she’d influenced Fabien in his pursuit of philosophy and writing, he’d also chosen his own path by living with a few anarchists in a remote cabin in the French countryside. His outlook diverges from hers and which she can’t agree, ironically, that’s the reward of her teaching: training one to think for oneself and to choose one’s own path independently.

Upon his invitation, Nathalie had spent a few days there, an idyllic ,rural setting for her to recuperate from a life unhinged. She’s got her mother’s cat with her, Pandora, a cat that’s not used to the wild but takes off the instant Nathalie takes her out of the cabin. Lost for hours but Pandora finally finds her way back to the country abode in the middle of the night. ‘Instinct’, Fabien says. And that just might be what Nathalie needs to hang on to at this moment of her life.

Surely, Things to Come is a ‘thinking’ film, but viewers will also enjoy the nuanced performance of the cast, and what the camera reveals in the form of natural beauty and serenity for one to search things out. What more, Hansen-Løve lets us see both the larger scale of a flaw-ridden society and the trivial foibles in the interactions between Nathalie and Heinz.

Female viewers would likely find affiliation with Huppert’s role of an urban, professional woman who has to juggle many hats to fulfill her duties. Nathalie’s search for direction at the crossroads may not necessarily lead to obvious answers, but she manages to find comfort and joy in the birth of her grandchild, an endearing scene to end the film.

More importantly, Nathalie seems to have carved out a quiet solitude. an independence to mull on the unfathomable in life. Still searching, but in the meantime, she seems to have found a respite, a new solace to face what things may come.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

 

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Middlemarch Book II – IV: Inkblot Test

We’ve come to the midpoint of our tentative reading plan. Hard to believe one month’s gone by already. Instead of a review of all the chapters, how about a Middlemarch inkblot test?

What word comes to your mind when you see the following:

 

  • Dorothea 
  • Casaubon 
  • Ladislaw 
  • Fred 
  • Rosamond 
  • Lydgate 
  • Celia 
  • Mr. Brooke 
  • Mary Garth

 

I’ll just stop with these ones. Have your views about these characters changed from first you met them?

Any surprises in the storylines?

Which characters do you click ‘Like’?

What to do with the ones we don’t? Is Eliot having fun with Austen’s idea of creating characters whom no one would much like?

Favorite Quotes?

Here are some of mine, for various reasons, but mostly for Eliot’s power of association in her descriptions.

Will Ladislaw’s thought about Dorothea:

“To ask her to be less simple and direct would be like breathing on the crystal that you want to see the light through.”

About Dorothea’s predicament:

“I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight –– that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”

And if Eliot were among us today, she would likely be vocal in the #Metoo and #Timesup movements:

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.”

***

Your two pebbles?

Wood Duck.jpg

 

***

Other posts from our Read-Along participants:

Men of Middlemarch

Middlemarch –– Ladislaw’s Force of Unreason

Middlemarch by George Eliot –– Completed today

 

A Good Friday Trial

DSC_0280

“Then went the jury out, whose names were Mr. Blindman, Mr. Nogood, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. Highmind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, Mr. Implacable, who everyone gave in his private verdict against him among themselves, and afterwards unanimously concluded to bring him in guilty before the judge. And first among themselves, Mr. Blindman, the foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is a heretic. Then said Mr. Nogood. way with such a fellow from the earth! Ay, said Mr. Malice, for I hate the very look of him. Then said Mr. Love-lust, I could never endure him. Nor I, said Mr. Live-loose; for he would be always condemning my way. Hang him, hang him, said Mr. Heady. A sorry scrub, said Mr. High-mind. My heart riseth against him, said Mr. Enmity. He is a rogue, said Mr. Liar. Hanging is too good for him, said Mr. Cruelty. Let us despatch him out of the way, said Mr. Hate-light. Then said Mr. Implacable, Might I have all the world given me, I could not be reconciled to him; let us forthwith bring him in guilty of death. And so they did; therefore he was presently condemned to be had from the place where he was, to the place from whence he came, and there to be put to the most cruel death that could be invented.”

–– John Bunyan
Pilgrim’s Progress

 

***

“I am an immigrant” Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro speaks for millions

Who isn’t from a lineage of immigrants in this relatively new continent of ours ‘discovered’ just a few hundred years ago. Even the indigenous of our land are thought to have had migrated from elsewhere. In his acceptance speech for Best Director at Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards, Mexican film director, writer, and producer of The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro conveys multiple truths. Indeed, multiplicity looks to be the trend forward.

del Toro

“I am an immigrant,” del Toro declares, these four words bold and clear, albeit humbly and thankfully.

The director continues:

“In the last 25 years I’ve been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it in Europe, part of it everywhere.”

del Toro highlighted another truth by saying that being a part of a diaspora, home can be anywhere. While some may oppose to it, one cannot deny the effects of globalization is a breaking down of barriers, the fusing of cultures, and the forming of the world citizen.

del Toro is the third Mexican director to win the Best Picture Oscar. He follows two of his countrymen–‘The Three Amigos’ as they’re called– basking in the Oscar limelight in recent years, Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity in 2013 and Alejandro González Iñárritu in the subsequent two years for Birdman and The Revenant.

“… I think that the greatest thing that our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”

The making of the Oscar winning feature The Shape of Water is a testimony of border crossing. Written and helmed by a Mexican director, the film stars a London, England, born Sally Hawkins, supported by a cast of American actors. Original music written by a French film composer, Alexandre Desplat, who won his second Oscar with his water music (his first was The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2015). Director of photography is Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen. The movie nominated for thirteen Academy Awards and winning four is shot and produced in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Toronto production designer Paul D. Austerberry and his team garners an Oscar for their creative work, bringing del Toro’s fantastic imagination to life.

del Toro sure knows what it means to erase lines in the sand.

Kazuo Ishiguro

A parallel figure can be found in the world of another art form. The 2017 Nobel Laureate in Literature Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954. When he was five, he followed his family to England. At first his parents thought their sojourn would be a short couple of years, but the family ended up staying there ever since. Immigrants as well. Ishiguro had not returned to visit the country of his birth until thirty years later.

His earliest novels are set in Japan confronting Japanese issues; his later works expand out to other locales and even crossing literary genres. His most well-known novel is perhaps The Remains of the Day which was adapted into film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It is bona fide a British novel.

Is he a Japanese writer or an English writer? Ishiguro was asked this boundary-setting question after his Nobel win. In his own words on the British Council Literature webpage: “I am a writer who wishes to write international novels. What is an ‘international’ novel? I believe it to be one, quite simply, that contains a vision of life that is of importance to people of varied backgrounds around the world. It may concern characters who jet across continents, but may just as easily be set firmly in one small locality.” Only by eliminating borders can one reach the universal.

del Toro had it right when he used the metaphor of lines in the sand. Often borders are not carved in stone but fluid and arbitrary. Surely you can make them deeper. But sand being sand, the lines can be readily washed away as the tides of change come rolling in.

***

I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost my article in full.

Related Posts:

The Shape of Water is All Enfolding

Don’t Just Drive Past The Three Billboards

Mudbound: From Book to Screen

 

‘Certain Women’: To Connect on a Vast Landscape

The common denominator is the landscape: Montana. Open country, clear, fresh air. The expanse of space could mean the freedom to roam. As we look into the four female characters, however, the vastness of the landscape and the cold winter could infer separateness and the need for connections. In the internal landscape, an assertion of self.

Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. Meloy’s stories are lean and succinct. Correspondingly, Reichardt’s style is minimal as with her previous works. She brings together three loosely linked stories that can stand on their own. To review them in a succinct way, I’ll use three words as my focal point for each.

Certain Women.jpg

Authority

Laura (Laura Dern), a woman lawyer in Livingston has to deal with a disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who was injured in his construction job. As he has accepted a settlement, he can have no further claim for tort. Laura has explained this to him time and again, but he refuses to believe her until one day, they drive a few hours to another town to seek a second opinion from a personal injury lawyer, a male. As Fuller listens to the lawyer stating the same reason as Laura has been telling him all along, he just says ‘Okay’ and seems to accept the fact. Laura laments: “If I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen and say ‘Okay.’ It’ll be so restful.”

A few days later, a hostage-taking incident occurs in the middle of the night, and Laura is called by the police. It’s Fuller taking a security guard hostage at a government office and wants her to go in to read him his file regarding compensation. Laura goes in and calmly diffuses the tense situation. The incident sends Fuller to prison. He seems content when Laura visits him. Laura finds a changed and much calmer Fuller. He appreciates her visit, and just wants an occasional letter from her to keep in touch. Laura does have authority after all, albeit may not be as she has hoped in the professional front. Her influence rests on her considerate demeanor making an impact on a personal and human level. And for this, Fuller learns to appreciate.

Authenticity

A city woman Gina (Michelle Williams) wants to build a country dream house, not to move in but as a weekend home. She has her eyes on a pile of sandstones that belong to long time resident of the land, Albert (Rene Auberjonois). The sandstones hold the history of the area, for they are from the original school house. We see the cracks in Gina’s relationship with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) as they try to smooth-talk Albert, Gina seemingly caring but assertive in what she wants, while Ryan is apologetic and conciliatory. Why would a city woman want a pile of old sandstones for her country home? For authenticity, Ryan tells Albert. Ouch, is that supposed to be helpful or is he being sarcastic? Further, their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) seems to be harder to placate as she is dragged along to the country reluctantly. The crevice in the mother-daughter relationship looks to be a tough fissure to fix.

Alienation

The most moving segment comes last. A young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) has to drive a few hours several nights a week after work from Livingston to Belfry to teach a night course on school law, a prior commitment before she found her present job. At the night class, she encounters a ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who drops in out of curiosity. The short moments of sharing as she accompanies Beth to a diner after class for a meal before she drives back home stir up deep longings. Gladstone’s restraint is particularly moving. Nuanced performance from both.

While she may be adroit with horses, it’s a human connection that Jamie yearns for. She comes to every class until one night, the students are told that the class will be taught by another teacher as Beth has quit due to the long drive. Eager to look for her, the ranch hand drives to Livingston to search for a lawyer named Beth Travis. What follows is an aching attempt to reach out towards an unrequited end. The last scene of the same horse-tending routines Jamie gets back to speaks poignantly. Life goes on despite…

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Source materials: Short stories by Maile Meloy “Tome” and “Native Sandstone” from the collection Half In Love, and “Travis, B.” from Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it.

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

I return to The Diary of A Country Priest by French author Georges Bernanos, (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936) perennially at Easter time. Like Endo’s Silence, it reveals candidly a priest’s suffering and struggles in the midst of a harsh and unwelcome world. Unlike Silence though, light shines through the cracks more warmly. Power through weakness, life conquering death, the essence of Easter.

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The Diary of a Country Priest Book Cover

A young priest comes to his first parish, the rural town of Ambricourt, filled with humble hopes. All he wants is to serve the people, to give of himself, to bring God’s love. But as soon as he sets foot in the village, he is engulfed by hatred and rejection. There are dark secrets too sinister to be exposed. The young priest is an unwelcome alien. In a town afflicted by hypocrisy, pride, anger and bitterness, he is despised, taunted and ridiculed. His own inexperience is no match even for the children in his catechism class, especially the precocious Seraphitas, a girl ‘with a hardness far beyond her years.’

Ambricourt is a world afflicted by the ‘leprosy of boredom’, a microcosm of the human condition. Bernanos uses diseases to illustrate his point well. The young priest himself is being slowly consumed by terminal illness. The pain in his stomach ultimately defeats his body, cancer. His diet consists mainly of bread dipped in wine which he makes for himself, and some potato soup. Poverty in materials parallels the frailty of his body to take in solid food. None of these though can compare to the sufferings in his spirit. Many a times we see him in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading for strength in anguish. But he faithfully presses on, using his diary to confide his deepest thoughts, a means to commune with his God.

On the outskirt of Ambricourt is the Château of the powerful M. le Comte. The Count needs no priest to know about his adulterous affairs, this time, with the governess Mlle Louise. His wife Mme la Comtesse is totally absorbed by her long-held bitterness and grief from the loss of her young son. And his daughter Mlle Chantal is a deeply disturbed girl eaten up by anger and jealousy. Soon, she will be sent away to England, a most convenient plan devised by her father.

It is with this deep mess of a family that the young priest finds himself entangled. The most intense scene of the whole book, the climatic moment, comes when the priest goes to the Château to meet with Mme la Comtesse. She lost her beloved son when he was only eighteen months old, a child hated by his jealous older sister Chantal.

On his last day they went out for a walk together. When they came back my boy was dead.

Mme la Comtesse is fully engulfed by hatred for her daughter, grief for her lost son, and bitterness towards God.

Hearing her speak, a tear flows down the face of the young priest. “Hell is not to love any more, madame.” The young priest responds. And with miraculous strength, he delivers the following words.

… But you know that our God came to be among us. Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter? It’s already been done to Him.

Towards the end of some soul piercing exchanges, Mme la Comtesse kneels down, releases her pain, and receives blessings from the young priest. Afterwards, she writes to him in a letter:

… I have lived in the most horrible solitude, alone with the desperate memory of a child. And it seems to me that another child has brought me to life again…

And this young child, a priest, consumed by illness, wreaked by frailty of spirit, can only marvel at the power through weakness:

Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Not long after this, he succumbs to his illness. A life too short, a mission seems unaccomplished. But his last words faintly uttered on his deathbed are as powerful as the God who sends him:

Does it matter? Grace is everywhere…

And in the film, these three words leave me with one of the most poignant endings of all the films that I’ve seen:

“All is grace.”

 ***

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

English Edition of The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, translated by Pamela Morris, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, PA, 1965, 298 pages.

Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936, was winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française.

Upcoming Post:

The Film Review of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951).

Related Post:

Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time

Silence by Shusaku Endo