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A stylized portrait of Wallace Shawn from Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre".

Beyond the Comfort Zone: Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” (1981)

Amazing it is when a film’s narrative is unlike any other. Even the concept seems too remarkable to be true—two men meet up and talk over dinner. Is this a play? No, as even in most plays, action tends to be more omnipresent. Instead, much like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (which tells an unconventional narrative via voiceover and still images), My Dinner With Andre feels like one is reading a novel or listening to a radio broadcast. Andre, who does most of the talking, is a terrific storyteller. While contemporary films might rely heavily on flashbacks, instead we must rely on our visual mind—all that is there and not.

For almost two hours, Andre (Andre Gregory) relays his story and we picture it scene by scene as he tells it. The first time I watched My Dinner with Andre, I recall being overwhelmed by his words but then in that same viewing I saw how necessary his storytelling was. Andre presents a Romanticism—the idea that to find more in life one must go out and seek it—and Wally (Wallace Shawn) contrasts this with pragmatism. […]

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Edouard Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass", which depicts figures of technically "incorrect" proportions.

Edouard Manet And The Mystery Of The Crowd

Everything was changing in late 19th century Paris. A series of disastrous wars and failed uprisings had precipitated the forming of a public works commission to rebuild the city. But this rebuilding was nothing on its own. It was meant to be the emblem and agent of a wider economic transformation – the emergence of modern day capitalism and consumerism. Suddenly gone was the old Paris of narrow streets and quartiers. The new Paris of cosmopolitan boulevards cut up into little pieces the city’s pre-existing world of fragile appearances – its traffic of class segregation and urban life. And this awareness of change was to be crucial for the emergence of an artist such as Edouard Manet. The elusiveness of the social world, the precarian nature of being in it, and being of it, are central subjects of the paintings he produced at this time. […]

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A stylized side-by-side portrait of Ted Hughes and Robinson Jeffers.

‘But They Both Wrote About Hawks!’: Robinson Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks” vs. Ted Hughes’s “The Hawk In The Rain”

When contemplating writers, it is not uncommon for many to lump them together on account of subject matter. Sure, it is shallow, but it is easy marketing. Imagine it—any nature writer is ‘just like Loren Eiseley’ and any gay, black political essayist who writes on race is ‘just like James Baldwin.’ Anyone who writes of death is ‘just like Sylvia Plath,’ or anyone spiritual is ‘just like Rilke.’ (How convenient a comparison, albeit even if the writing itself is lacking in skill or depth.) Years ago, I got into an argument with a professor who claimed that some random ‘nature’ writer was ‘just like Loren Eiseley.’ She argued this after having complained about the lack of intellectual writing presented within university courses. And while I did agree with her initial statement regarding the dearth of quality writing as presented in universities, when she got to examples, she was running on full emotion. (Where goes the intellectualism?) In short, she merely ‘liked’ certain banal nature writers and lumped them beside Eiseley ‘just because.’ Why? Well, it is easy. They both write about nature! […]

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A shot of the female lead entering her train car in Juho Kuosmanen's "Compartment No. 6".

Longing’s Transit: On Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” (2021)

In Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6, Laura is an introverted, soft-spoken Finnish national studying the Russian language in Moscow. Ljoha (or Lyokha, depending on how you want to Anglicize the name) is the sort of crass, bull-headed man that another character later on in the film remarks “is pumped out of a factory.” Both are on their way to Murmansk, in the northern wastes of Russia, and have found themselves partnered in the same cramped train compartment. Laura wants to inspect the Kanozero Petroglyphs, in order to discern humanity’s future from its past. Ljoha is heading there for work at a mining facility, so that he can build up funds for his own business ventures. That they are both searching for something more than their stated purposes is clear, although Laura is the more befuddled of the two, too vexed by her own romantic agonies to realize that she likely couldn’t give less of a damn about some old stone carvings in the Arctic cold.

Juho Kuosmanen’s adaptation of a novel by Rosa Liksom is a kind of love story, and bluntly states itself as such by the end, but there is no saccharine meet-cute, and the setting is less than quaint – instead, there is a pervading sense of melancholy, as Laura is a stranger in a strange land, and her journey away from Moscow’s ivory tower as well as an ephemeral relationship (the opening party scene deftly portrays the cutesy pretensions of the academic types that Laura’s girlfriend, Irina, pals around with), into wilder regions are punctuated by shots of the train’s slow passage through rainfall, icy winds, and barely-lit nights. The discomfort of human smells and unwanted company are only briefly alleviated by a cracked-open window or the precious gentility of a dining car. Kuosmanen and cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi ably maneuver their camera through the train’s confined interiors, following its characters like a particularly nosy companion in order to adequately capture their reactions. Such transit allows for very little privacy, and, outside of complete stonewalling, one is almost forced to associate with fellow travelers in order to pass the time more easily. While the connection between Laura and Ljoha is undeniable, all these elements make us ask: how much does sheer convenience (with chance contriving a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for both parties) play into their growing bond? They are, after all, very different people, as Ljoha is mystified by Laura’s wannabe intellectualism and cannot accept her canned reasoning for wanting to see the petroglyphs. […]

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A shot of a hooded "glasses man" from Chris Marker's "La Jetee".

Shadows & Windows: On Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962)

It is not uncommon for one to imbue more into another than what is actually there; where time and memory are no longer obstacles, and on the outside exists some narrator. Everything then becomes ordered according to some standard. Memories uphold our moments as though they were poles in a tent, but remove them from our minds and we are left formless and limp. Free, possibly, to build into some other identity. Or perhaps left wandering some empty wartime world.

Chris Marker’s La Jetée finishes in just under 30 minutes and offers a narrative via voiceover and still pictures. Before us lives the war torn cities, the silence of metal and transport. Time is no obstacle, as humans can easily cross from one moment into another, seamlessly and without plans. […]

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An imagined landscape of the Rio Grande from Jessica Schneider's novel, "Human Stuff".

For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”

Art opens within a necessary season.

Indeed, it did in me, for my season primarily wanted succour. Adolescence, unstable time, grew the need to grow against a reality taken in. And, I admit – it was The Catcher in the Rye that placated that need, sent me towards the altar of Art. Holden’s woes seemed mine, drew me, and I turned pages to find my mirror. It was only later I learned Art could be much more, for a mirror need shatter that tells much truth; when behind – infinite lies.

So angsty works will always be in demand: the need will long exist. Yet, a certain arbitrariness resides in therapy when woe wants little but its own identification. The works in which I found my peace were, in hindsight, of variable quality: anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the stories of David Foster Wallace, the novels of Herman Hesse. Some, I would realize, said deeper things, used angst as interrogation rather than end. As many a mature reader of Salinger would note, even Holden has an unreliability that implies a reality beyond him. He is, after all, recounting his tale from a sanitorium, broken, not a voice of authority. But such a work has limits. Nowadays, particularly in YA Lit, there are too many Holdens: clone Holdens, zombie Holdens. In the end, succour is lucrative. […]

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A stylized picture of snowy Minneapolis, the setting of Bruce Ario's novel "Cityboy".

A Cityboy Finds Meaning: On “Cityboy” by Bruce Ario

Whenever reviewing any writer, objectivity is important. But what when you have known that writer personally? What then? This is my third time reading Bruce Ario’s novel, Cityboy*. The first was in 2000, when he introduced it. At the time, I’d become familiar with his poems via the Uptown Poetry Group, albeit I knew not what to expect from his prose. Hell, at that time, I hadn’t even begun my trip into prose, and so what did I know? The second time I read it was in 2009, for creative purposes. I was working on my own novel and I needed to revisit the masculine perspective. And now, my third read occurred after his death, in 2022. Each read brought about a visceral reaction, with each experience growing in intensity. All I can say is wow—did Bruce hit a home run with this one.

Firstly, within Cityboy there is the notion of the city as every bit a character as that of John Argent Jr. The city never changes—it is the one lone, solid, dependable thing. It never changes, but John’s perception of it does. When he is young, the city lives as its own entity—a breathing, living being that holds endless possibility. But as John ages, the city grows more menacing. It strangles him, much like a vine within the wilderness. It overwhelms, and it sucks the life from him. Yet John is both attracted and repelled by its expectations. The city—it is this lone love, this mysterious, cosmopolitan, wonderful thing. […]

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A stylized shot of the child Dalai Lama in Martin Scorsese's "Kundun".

Buddhism In Art: On Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” (1997)

Wondering whether any works of art profit from the richer aspects of Buddhist philosophy, I mostly found mediocre films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, which miscasts a wooden Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha Gautama, or biographies on well-known monks, that, although interesting to someone already familiar with their lives, are not any more compelling. One of the few exceptions to this is Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which owes its success not only to excellent cinematography (Roger Deakins) and scoring (Philip Glass) but especially to Scorsese’s ability to exploit core Buddhist concepts to striking poetic effect.

The film follows the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s childhood and his subsequent struggles with the Chinese invasion of Tibet. From the opening shot, there is a dynamism to the film’s editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) and cinematography characteristic of Martin Scorsese’s best films. The film begins with an image of the Himalayas, which transitions into a reverse video of a mandala as it is blown away, making it seem like the wind itself was creating the sandpainting. There is an elegance to this opening that makes it clear, from the start, that Kundun is a work of art first and an act of devotion second. […]