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.

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More Downton Ripples

Two years ago, some time after Downton Abbey Season 2 had finished airing on PBS, I wrote my first “Downton Ripples” post. I subtitled it “How I Overcome Downton Abbey Withdrawal Syndrome”. In that post, I’d listed some books and movies/TV productions that relate to the setting similar to Downton Abbey, for I was fascinated by the Great War period after watching Downton.

Some of the authors I read included Robert Graves, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and watched Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Easy Virtue and discovered Lost Empires, the TV series with a young Colin Firth together with Laurence Olivier, amazing.

This time, after Season 4, the withdrawal syndrome seems to have numbed a bit, but the ripples continue to spread. Again, Downton has prodded me to seek out the literature around the time between WW1 and WW2 Europe. While there are many present day authors writing about that era, I’d like to hear more authentic voices. I went looking for writers actually living in that period of history to hear their stories.

The following is a list of titles I’ve gone through this time, some I have finished, some still on my ‘To be’ agenda:

Parade’s End (2012, BBC/HBO co-production)

Parade's End Blu-Ray Cover

This series complements Downton Abbey perfectly. While Downton is light and heart-warming, soapy in its feel, Parade’s End is cerebral and literary, its social commentary of the time harsher and more incisive. I think the difference is, Julian Fellowes creates as a contemporary screenwriter, and knowing what modern day viewers want, he caters to their desire. Yes, he has offered us charming entertainment, and for the stars and the show, opportunities for Emmy and Golden Globe noms and wins.

Parade’s End is another story. Playwright Tom Stoppard (Emmy and BAFTA nom for this) adapts from Ford Madox Ford, a writer during WWI period, contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the Lost Generation after The Great War, and witness to the destruction of the old world order and individual lives. Sure social barriers were dismantled, but together with such collapse came the shattering of long-held values and beliefs. Through the protagonist Christopher Tietjens, we can feel the intense struggles and poignancy of a man caught in such desolation.

I first saw Parade’s End on HBO when there was a window of free viewing. After watching one episode, I knew I must subscribe to continue with the rest of the series, and so I did. Effective advertising indeed. That was last year, and I recently just finished re-watching Parade’s End on Blu-Ray.

Parade’s End is the first time I watch Benedict Cumberbatch in a leading role (Emmy nom), an impressive performance as Christopher Tietjens, one of the last remaining honourable men struggling to stay afloat in the drowning waves of social change and ideals. Rebecca Hall (BAFTA nom) is effective as the scheming and seductive wife Sylvia. The young, almost ethereal Adelaide Clemens as suffragette Valentine Wannop is perfect. She makes me think of Carey Mulligan. And what a wonderful connection — Mulligan will be the star of the new film Suffragette, which I highly anticipate.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Parade's End BBC Book Cover copy

This will be my major challenge in TBR books this year. Image here is the BBC Book edition I bought in a book sale a few years back. It has 906 pages, and is made up of four novels — Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post. A more recent edition is the reissue of Penguin Modern Classic, with a new introduction written by Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending). You can read the intro here.

Parade’s End by Tom Stoppard

Parade's End Script by Tom Stoppard

I enjoy reading the scripts of productions I like. It’s a kind of deconstruction, if you will, demythisizing of sort. I’m fascinated by the skills of a screenwriter who uses words to elicit images for the director to execute, translating the literary into the visual using words. To write for the screen almost sounds like an oxymoron. I’ve read Julian Fellowe’s Downton Abbey scripts and found it most interesting. I’d like to explore Tom Stoppard’s journey of adaptation. But first, I need to tackle Ford Madox Ford’s original texts.

T. S. EliotT. S. Eliot — After Downton and Parade’s End, I’m all geared up to explore deeper into the the psyche and spirituality of the time. Why, after all, what had lost in a generation was not just the physical bodies or social structures, but the internal, the destruction of a value and belief system. I’d like to read and reread Eliot’s works, delve into a time that prompted the poet to see hollow men, and women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. What’s underneath the façade of human progress?

The Europeans by Henry JamesThe Europeans by Henry James — A voice from the dawn of the 20th Century. I have finished listening to the amusing auidiobook of The Europeans. Yes, unlike many readers’ impression of James’ works, The Europeans is a delightful read (listen). It is like a medley of E. M. Forster and Jane Austen. Humorous depiction of the different POV’s between a pair of European sister/brother coming to visit their American cousins residing in the outskirt of Boston. With some LOL moments. My next James read is The Ambassadors.

The Collected Stories of Stefan ZweigStefan Zweig — While Lady Edith’s love Michael Gregson headed to Germany and mysteriously gone missing, the then famous (real life) writer Stefan Zweig in Austria was lamenting the spread of anti-semitism in the continent. It’s interesting that Downton has led me to connect, at least in historical timeline, with an author I’ve just recently discovered, thanks to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, to which he has credited the works of Stefan Zweig. I’ve recently read Zweig’s Chess Story, and now delving into his short stories.

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National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month.  I’m glad we still celebrate poetry in this day of ephemeral twittering.  W. H. Auden once described poetry as “memorable speech”.  As millions upon millions join in on-line chats, exchanging the most trivial of their everyday life unreservedly, and even addictively all day long, how we need poetry all the more, to create lines that strive for some memorable quality worthy of keeping.

The late Canadian communication guru Marshall McLuhan was right, the medium is the message.   And such is the message of our time.  Mind you, I’m no Luddite, my iPhone is evidence.  I’ve gone through this before, so I’m not going to dwell on it here again.  It’s just that the rash and temporal nature of our medium, and mode, for that matter,  make me long for quality and permanence.

After posting an excerpt of  T.S. Eliot’s poetry in my last entry, I just didn’t have enough.  I re-read and explored more of his work and was amazed at how prophetic his vision was.  To celebrate National Poetry Month, here’s Arti’s selections of  lines from the work of T.S. Eliot, just for our post-modern, Facebook and Twitter generation.

nighthawk-by-edward-hopper

Twit twit twit

Jug jug “>jug jug jug jug jug

So rudely forc’d.

— The Waste Land (1922)



Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

— Ash Wednesday (1930)


There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

….

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all: —
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

….

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

— The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)



The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

— Choruses from The Rock (1934)


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Visual: Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.  CLICK HERE FOR MORE EDWARD HOPPER.

Stream of Easter Consciousness

stained-glass-2a2So students are sent back to school this week, just in time for Easter.  Nobody wants to have a holiday right on Easter week, especially the public school board.  That’s how you survive,  by being politically correct.  And the last two weeks’ holiday is called Spring Break of course.   Easter has almost become a banned word, like Christmas.  Who wants to be rude and offend others, we’re Canadians after all.

I know,  it’s not totally a taboo yet.  It’s a much tamer word, Easter, than Christmas, just because it doesn’t have the six-lettered word in it.  You can curse with that name, but no, God forbid you should say it in a proper context.   I can see you sneer, what’s a proper context, you ask.  You’re right of course, no word or context is more proper than others, we’re egalitarians after all.  As for Easter, as long as it’s synonymous with eggs and bunnies, pastels and flowers then it’ll never die.  Who needs resurrections?

All Fridays are good.  They even have a whole restaurant chain commemorating the day.  What’s it called… yes,  T.G.I. Friday’s.  Who says we’re not religious, we thank God for happy hours.  We’re much more open-minded now,  more civilized, equal and fair, don’t want to pick one day to be better than the others.  But definitely we won’t forget Ramadan, or the Chinese New Year.

There’s probably no God,  so stop worrying and enjoy your life, the sign on the bus says.  So we’re safe?   Whew!  No God means we can now be happy, worry free, all life, no death, …  Umm just let me figure this one out.  Give me a minute, I’m just not as smart as them.

Jesus wept.  He wept at the graveside of Lazarus, brother of his dear friends Martha and Mary.  He wept at the fragility of life.  He wept at the searing pain of separation.  He wept at the hopeless and uncomprehending expression on Mary’s face, even after he said to her I am the resurrection and the life.

Fleming Rutledge said more than ten years ago:  “I am deeply convicted, more so each year, of the profound sinfulness of the human race.  Yet because of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ — because of that and nothing else, because of that and nothing less — I am also convicted of the truth of what the Bible tells us about God’s plan of salvation.  The rainbow bridge does not lead to Valhalla, where the gods quarrel so much that they destroy themselves.  The rainbow bridge leads to the Cross and to the empty tomb on Easter Day.”

Utterly politically incorrect!  Who uses the word sin anymore?  Who’s Fleming Rutledge, anyway.  Never heard of him.  No?  It’s a she?  No wonder.

Now these words echo loud and clear too, written by T. S. Eliot in… what, 1934?  Aren’t they a bit archaic now?  Or, maybe they’re really prophetic:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

We should go on living, be happy and worry-free, the sign on the bus says.

So we go on living…

and Jesus still weeps.

stained-glass-41

*****

Original photos and text copyright by Ripple Effects, https://rippleeffects.wordpress.com, April 2009.  All Rights Reserved.