Author: Jessica Schneider

Jessica is a novelist and poet. Visit her Amazon Book page for a glimpse into what she's shared. Her unreleased works include several trilogies and poetic novels on religious themes. She is currently working on a poetry collection on French painters. She also runs a YouTube channel on the arts.
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A stylized shot from Chantal Akerman's "News From Home", depicting a 1970s New York City skyline and red buses, as reviewed by Jessica Schneider for the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine.

Metal, Stone, & Zip Codes: On Chantal Akerman’s “News From Home” (1976)

Oscar Wilde once said something like, ‘Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.’ Or rather, what he actually said was, ‘the highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.’ The rest can be attributed to my misremembering.

Admittedly, I do believe that criticism is the highest form of autobiography, as in, what one thinks is good or bad in the arts can say more about how that person thinks than is realized. As example, if romance novels and spy thrillers drive you, then you’re likely not going to be very interested in James Joyce. Furthermore, if you think the ending of Saving Private Ryan with old Matt Damon asking his wife to ‘tell me I’m a good man,’ before the film ends with the American flag is deep filmmaking, then you’re probably not going to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky.

This brings me to Chantal Akerman whose films, in my mind at least, resemble the poetry of Adrienne Rich in their lackluster quality and pretension. Coincidentally, those who praise Akerman are likely to praise Rich because both are academic darlings who engage in joyless, meandering art that involves ideas better expressed by others. I have seen three of Akerman’s films, the first being Je tu il elle, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, and News From Home. Of the three films, I enjoyed News From Home the most, largely due to my not remembering the first two.

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Poetic Pragmatism: on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”

Too often young writers fall into the nebulous trap of attempting to be philosophical or spiritual without any practicality to ground them. As example, it’s not uncommon to see young poets write about clichéd themes with indistinct language, as their verse falls within familiar, tired tropes ultimately resulting in some limp attempt at poetry. Again, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach a poem, mind you, but when starting out, it’s typically better to start small, e.g., write about how much you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee, or what you notice while on line at the grocery store, or simply the pleasure you feel (for the gluten tolerant) when eating a bagel. Furthermore, it is important to keep mindful that all these pedestrian events can be philosophical if rendered well.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is regarded as a 20th-century poetic darling, who wrote much in the same vein as Marianne Moore, albeit less cerebral. Despite her thin output, Bishop managed to create several successful poems evoking a child-like eye, such as “The Map,” “The Moth-Man,” “The Moose,” “Questions of Travel,” and “In the Waiting Room,” among others. Her verse can be gentle and comforting, unpretentious and inviting, with all the while her narrative unfolding quietly and uniquely. Readers should be encouraged to study her Complete Poems (again, a thin output compared to many other poets), but her poetic approach can nonetheless offer some aid to the otherwise lost, disillusioned writer. […]

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A stylized shot of the protagonist watching a lightning storm in David Lynch "The Straight Story".

Beauty in the Ordinary: David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999)

Have you ever watched a film that made you wonder where it has been all these years? Alright, perhaps I do recall when this came and went in the theatres—I think the poster looks familiar, but admittedly, this isn’t the sort of film I would have gone to see at the time of its release. Furthermore, this has to be the most un-David Lynch film of David Lynch films, and yet the narrative is so simple and the character development is so good that I am left scratching my head. Sure, David Lynch is a director with talent enough to at least acquire obsessive fans—and I have seen several of his films, including Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and others. It’s not so much that any of his films are bad per se, just dull.

Granted, Lynch’s narratives tend to veer on ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happening just so someone can say how much ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happens, all the while neglecting to mention the lack in character development and arid dialogue. Honestly, I can’t say I have ever connected with any of Lynch’s characters, and I remain adamant when I say that having weird shit happen for the sake of weird shit happening offers an easy way to distract from shallow character development much in the same way that forced politics in bad art attempts to distract from clichés. But I digress. […]

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A stylized photo of African American poet Robert Hayden, in sepia tones, wearing his trademark thick eyeglasses under a cloudy sky.

READ THIS POET: Four Poems by Robert Hayden

If there is one common denominator that remains imperative when applied to literature and poetry specifically, it is the demonstration of craft. After all, anyone can write a political screed, but that doesn’t mean such a work is well rendered. Rather, to be presented with a skilled mind that has not only put great thought into each line but also has consideration for the reader—well, this makes all the difference. Thankfully, Robert Hayden was this sort of poet and person. An African American who grew up in the slums of Detroit, Michigan, he spoke adamantly of not wanting to neglect his history and experience, nor to be limited by either. Much of his career seemed to involve a need for his own identity—to write what he wanted, rather than what activists might have expected of him. ‘There is no black poetry or white poetry, there is only American poetry,’ Hayden states in this interview, dated March 1975, wherein he also notes his opposition to the way Black writing is presented—that is, as sociological works rather than literature.

Much of Hayden’s poetry found online are his more historical leaning poems involving the Black experience, e.g., “Middle Passage,” “Frederick Douglas,” “The Whipping,” and “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” among others (including his great boyhood classic, “Those Winter Sundays”). However, this essay will not be discussing any of those wonderful poems. Rather, I wish to address those poems involving his more personal experiences, as well as how he used nature observation for his distillation. Why should these fine works be overlooked? Alas, one such poem is “Ice Storm”. […]

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Stylized shot of David Dastmalchian speaking to a live audience in Cameron and Colin Cairnes's "Late Night with the Devil".

Eyes on the Dream: David Dastmalchian in “Late Night with the Devil” (2023)

I often joke about how I enjoy horror films as ‘light entertainment.’ Well, it’s not a joke really, as I do view them as light entertainment, which in turn, results in a bemused expression from the listener. But they are light entertainment! However, what I mean is that I enjoy them for their attempts at suspense and eeriness more so than for anything intellectual, as the best horror will be able to at least build the viewer’s curiosity without resorting to clichéd jump scares and gore.

This is how I felt watching Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s Late Night with the Devil, starring David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy, a 1970s talk show host for the late-night fictional variety show Night Owls. The show, mirroring many of the variety hours throughout the 1970s, can’t seem to reach Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show ratings. And while I do not find the film scary, it is at least clever in its delivery. With the orange carpet and the multi-colored striped set, the filmmakers did an excellent job detailing this era—combining character sketches, spinning wheels, channel interruptions, and words from their sponsors. While initially successful, over the years Night Owls’s ratings begin to drop, which resorts to Jack desperately pandering to more Jerry Springer-type routines. […]

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Rosanna Arquette smoking a cigarette in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" (1985)

The Furious Fever Dream: Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985)

Never has a statement been more pertinent (other than in Carnival of Souls itself) as it is in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Just what is daylight in relation to night? And why does everything seem out of the ordinary once the sun sets? Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is an outstanding film, but not for the conventional reasons one might think. On one hand, the story is simple—a man goes out late at night to presumably meet up with a girl, only for his rendezvous to not work out, and then, amid his continual bad luck, he is unable to get home. Trying, trying, he continues to fail. Moreover, as I write this, the world is readying for the 2024 eclipse, and news stations have little else to discuss. As result, people have become hyper-fixated, and a little distracted, somewhat like the characters in After Hours.

The film begins with Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) at work, training a new employee on his company’s word-processing system. Since this is 1985, the screens look archaic and appear much more difficult to navigate than now. ‘I do not intend to do this for the rest of my life,’ the trainee says (played by Bronson Pinchot from Perfect Strangers). Paul is only half listening, as we can tell he’s been through this many times before. ‘Hmm?’ he asks, more so out of politeness than concern. The trainee goes on to speak about starting a literary magazine and forum for intellectuals—which are big dreams for an entry-level word processor. Meantime, we see a disinterested Paul gazing off into a daydream until he excuses himself. […]

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Tom Cruise smiling at his bar in Roger Donaldson's Razzie Award winner, "Cocktail".

The Wistful Longing Under the Drink Umbrella: On Roger Donaldson’s “Cocktail” (1988)

Imagine a guy whose life goals are to become a simple-minded millionaire and own a bar, albeit not necessarily in that order. How he gets there, though, is not by owning the bar, but by marrying a ‘rich chick,’ who will not only fund his shallow endeavors but also provide the down payment for the bar, or at least her father will, but we don’t know for sure. Do we care?

The 1980s spawned a plethora of bad films that rivaled the 1940s paint-by-number melodramas where the simple script is churned out with a particular star in mind. Enter in some friction where the guy goes off to hustle another woman for a while, but in the end love triumphs. After all, it’s not difficult to think you’ve met your soul mate while screwing for a week on the beach in Jamaica.

Cocktail stars Tom Cruise as Brian Flanagan (who I will just refer to as Tom Cruise throughout this review), a materialistic dullard just out of the service and desperate to open a bar and become a millionaire. He reads lots of ‘get rich quick’ books, but none work. He wants a high-paying job with influence, but his lack of a degree is getting in the way. Then he meets a seasoned bartender named Doug (Bryan Brown), who offers him a job. Doug also happens to be the only entertaining character in the film, and is full of lots of advice, like how a bartender is the ‘aristocrat of the working class.’ ‘The waitresses hate me,’ Tom Cruise says. ‘Wait till you’ve given them crabs. Then they’ll really hate you.’ Huh? […]

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A stylized shot of Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss in Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest".

Another Side: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (2023)

Have you ever encountered someone who valued his or her veneer above all else? Who was able to forgo any empathy for those suffering in order to maintain such a veneer? Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is not so much about the Holocaust as it is about our reactions to it, enforcing the notion that even the most extreme suffering, that is, these crimes against humanity, can become—for some—as ordinary and perfunctory as planting a bed of flowers.

The film opens with three and a half minutes of black screen and accompanying sound, to which we are expected to listen (evoking the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Yes, listen, because the sound within this film is every bit a character as the people themselves. Set in beautiful, bucolic Poland, we are presented with scenery that would otherwise seem idyllic, were it not for the Auschwitz death camp within walking distance. […]