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 screenshot from Journey to the Beginning of Time by Karel Zemen

Art of Observational Narrative: Karel Zemen’s “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955)

There are many ways which narrative can thrive within storytelling. This sometimes can pose difficulty for certain American audiences who have been brought up on the Hollywood kind—plot first and character later. Thus, anything that falls outside this realm is labeled ‘boring’ or ‘slow-moving’. (Just think back to when Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life. The movie theatre I attended had to include a sign explaining to audiences that this was the work of an ‘auteur’, as a means of preventing walkouts.) Forget Tarkovsky or Antonioni. These are, in fact, filmmakers that one needs to work up to in order to appreciate. It also requires an open mind, but that is another essay.

Karel Zemen’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a Czech film that explores the wonderment of childhood through observation. Four young boys decide that they want to witness the world back in its prehistoric days, and so they take their logbook and their canoe wherein they quickly find themselves among floating chunks of ice amid the Ice Age. They spot a slew of creatures and even find a trilobite. Immediately, I was reminded of my own childhood wherein I set out one day to find ‘fossils.’ (I didn’t find shit.) But how fun would be if I had? The film uses almost cartoon-like imagery and puppetry, which adds to the childlike excitement and mystery. This is a children’s film and a highly intelligent one, at that.

So what of the narrative, then? Much occurs via observation—we are along for the ride. In fact, I can think of no other idiom to better describe this film. The boys adhere to their logbook, they bicker, they bond. Creatures appear and disappear and we are able to uncover both the era in which they enter as well as the species, thanks to their logbook. (Bison, mammoths, brontosaurus and flamingos are among some.) A paleontologist was hired for guidance and so the detailed accuracy is important, as the audience will come to trust the film’s expertise. Dream-like and fictional, the surrounds successfully appear as artifice and this works. We become part of their imagined world. […]

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A screenshot from "Eyes Without A Face" (1960) by Georges Franju

Lessons In Vanity: On “Eyes Without a Face” (1960) by Georges Franju

Horror films have it difficult. On one hand, they have to be scary or at least creepy enough to hold one’s interest, and on the other, they have to contain characters well developed enough for audiences to care. Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) succeeds at both. While this is not a great film, it is quite good, and rare is it we find a film involving the so-called ‘mad scientist’ doctor that works. The film contains a gothic quality, where we observe and then we feel sorry. As for whom? Well, that all depends. 

Dr. Génessier, played by Pierre Brasseur, is a plastic surgeon who has developed a new form of face transplants—something he calls ‘heterografting’, which involves the removal of one living face and transplanting it onto another. In order for this to work however, both patients need to be alive, which makes it unfortunate for the donor. Dr. Génessier’s daughter is disfigured due to a car accident for which he is responsible. So now he is on a mission to find her a new face, but the only problem is that this requires him and his lover Louise (played by Alida Valli) to kidnap young women and then later dump their bodies into the convenience of the loud nearby river. 

Louise is one of his success stories, as Dr. Génessier managed to restore her face years earlier. And it should be noted that often these transplants don’t work, especially when the skin begins to reject the tissue. Édith Scob plays his daughter Christiane, who walks about in an expressionless mask, appearing as though she were a doll. ‘Kiss a doll and it won’t kiss back,’ she says. Only her eyes move and this gives her a haunting quality—she appears angelic and ghostlike, while she walks in white, behaving as though her life has ended. It might as well, as she lives imprisoned within her father’s house. Blaming her disfigurement, as bad as it is, this does not seem to be the worst of her problems. […]

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A shot from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red

Chance, Hope & Somber Vigor: “Three Colors: Red” (1994) 

It is not so much the fragility of life but the fragility of chance that most affects us. Krzysztof Kieślowski was no stranger to this, as the idea of happenstance can be seen within his earlier films (Blind Chance, 1987, and The Double Life of Veronique, 1991). Just what would our lives be were we elsewhere or if we had not chanced upon another? Three Colors: Red is the final film within his Three Colors Trilogy and it is the most complex, as it works not just independently but also in concert with the other two. In his review, Roger Ebert notes: ‘In the trilogy, “Blue” is the anti-tragedy, “White” is the anti-comedy, and “Red” is the anti-romance.’ The beginning of Red is the shot of telephone lines and in them contain human voices, as they carry across continents. At any moment, we might join one another or our communication could break apart, thus rendering us alone and without contact. 

The film stars Irene Jacob as Valentine, a young model who longs for her out of reach boyfriend. We never see him—we only hear him over the phone, where he regards her indifferently. She tells him that she misses him but he responds with, ‘me too.’ Based on his coldness, he doesn’t love her but he still tells her that he might love her. ‘That’s not the same,’ she replies. One night, Valentine hits a German shepherd with her car. The dog is bleeding and the collar indicates that her name is Rita. Valentine frantically returns the dog to her owner—a reclusive, retired judge (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). Valentine pushes herself in when he does not answer the door. Upon the news, he reacts with indifference. She then takes Rita to a vet and comes to learn that the dog is pregnant. The Judge sends Valentine payment, but he sends more than the cost of the bill. When she goes to return his money, she finds him eavesdropping on his neighbor’s conversations. Chastising him, Valentine informs him that she pities him, but he realizes that it is more disgust that she feels. ‘People have a right to their secrets,’ she says.  […]

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A stylized still from Krzysztof Kieślowski's "White"

Revenge for the Unrequited: Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Three Colors: White” (1994)

Heartache is never easy. Especially when one feels love for another that goes unreturned. White is the second film within Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, and it offers a great contrast to that of the somber, melancholic Blue. White stars Zbigniew Zamachowski as Karol, a pathetic Polish man who seems to have everything go wrong. To begin, his wife, played by Julie Delpy, is divorcing him on the grounds that their marriage was never consummated. But not before entering the courthouse does he have a Paris pigeon land its white shit upon him. This seems to be a metaphor for his marriage, and whilst we’re at it, his life. His ex-wife, Dominique, is needlessly cruel towards him. She dumps his suitcase at the courthouse, only to leave him stranded. She has cut off his money, and so he is forced to wander about Paris before deciding to sleep within their mutually owned salon. (He works as a hairdresser.) He still loves her—so much so, that after their divorce is granted, he throws up.

Upon sight of him, she threatens to call police. He begs her to come to Poland. They then attempt sex, where he fails to perform. As a result, she sets the curtains ablaze, and says she will blame him. We do not know anything about their relationship, save that they married six months ago. But her actions are cold and cruel—especially if the man’s biggest flaw is an inability to maintain an erection. Karol escapes to the Metro station, where he is seated, playing songs through a comb and begging for money. Another Polish man approaches and speaks in his native tongue. ‘How did you know?’ Karol asks. The man informs him that he recognized the Polish tune. Eventually, Karol is shipped to Poland in a large suitcase, but it is stolen. When the thieves open it to find a man inside, they punch him and abandon him at a landfill, wherein Karol then stands beneath the circling, trash-feasting gulls and says, ‘Home at last.’ […]

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A screenshot of Juliette Binoche in "Blue" by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Grief & Long Suffering in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue” (1993)

There are many ways grief is undertaken. Some are long sufferers but hold it in, and others react outwardly and immediately. They say that it has five stages, but how someone progresses from one stage to the next depends on that individual, as there is no right or wrong way to go about it. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue might be one of the best films ever to touch upon grief and what it does to a person. How does one approach such tremendous loss, like the death of one’s husband and daughter? How does one even begin to live again?

Juliette Binoche plays Julie, a wife and mother who loses her family in a car accident. The event takes place within the film’s first few moments. Her husband, a successful composer, crashes their car into a tree. Only Julie survives. An onlooker comes to her rescue, and next we see images of the hospital doctor reflected within her eye, informing her that both her husband and daughter are dead. Turns out her husband was in midst of telling a joke when the car crashed. 

Julie does not cry. Or if she does, we don’t witness it. Yet she is visibly upset and tries to attempt suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills, but she is unable to go through with it. She is curt with others—‘You used to be nicer,’ a reporter, who is asking about her deceased husband, tells her. ‘My husband and daughter are dead,’ Julie says. It is rumored that she composed much of his work. But how much, we don’t know. She watches her husband and daughter’s funeral on a portable TV screen while still in hospital. There is something sad and distant about this—that she—this wife and mother— has now become a stranger, separate from her husband’s life. It is through the TV where she later learns her husband had a mistress, who is expecting his child. […]

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A screenshot of "M" by Fritz Lang (1931)

The Master of Early Terror: Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931)

Fritz Lang’s M is a film so iconic in its visual narrative that it is difficult to imagine the scope of cinema without it. On one hand, M has been labeled a noir and on the other it is a crime story. Not horror, necessarily, despite being a film full of fear and terror. As Lang’s first speaking film, he uses both sound and silence effectively, where M begins as a dismal nightmare. The opening consists of children playing in a circle and singing a song about the neighborhood children who have been murdered. Everyone knows that a predator lurks about, so much so that even the children have invented songs. ‘He’ll turn you into mincemeat!’ they sing. Then, when one of the mothers overhears, she scolds them for singing it. The children are playful and occupied within their innocence, albeit there is an eerie quality to the scene, where something feels not right. One could even say it is rather creepy.

Neighbors know that children have been disappearing—a fear feeds the city, and the parents don’t want children walking alone. In another scene, the murderer—Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), eyes a young girl through a mirror. Throughout Fritz Lang’s film is his use of shade and reflection, be it glass, mirrors, or shadows at night. The girl manages to elude him when her mother comes to greet her. ‘I wanted to meet you halfway,’ the girl informs her mother, unknown to either that in the corner lurks a predator. Lorre is both a good and odd choice for the lead. His face is rotund and at times tender—he appears childlike and lost, as though he is unsure where he needs to go. His days continue in shadow and his world is gray. There is a loneliness to this place set in 1931 Germany. People move about like ghosts—detached, as though walking in some netherworld. One gets a sense that they don’t realize how miserable they should be. […]

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A shot of Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) by Vincente Minnelli

Vincente Minnelli Does Vincent: The Many Faces of Van Gogh (1956)

What inspires works about certain artists over others? From films to books to plays, why are some artists more culturally fetishized and others not? Well, the short answer is supply and demand—that as long as a subject is in demand, more of it will be supplied. A good example would be the numerous bios and books about Sylvia Plath. It seems there are three to four released a year, at minimum. Are they necessary? What insights are overturned? Van Gogh is another. He even made it into a Dr. Who episode. So why is this? Again, the short answer is that there is a demand. Also, it is no coincidence that both Plath and Van Gogh lived the short, romantic, ‘tragic life’ of the artist, which gives audiences a reason to wonder what brought about such suffering in the first place.

Van Gogh has had a number of films about him—from Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life (1956, based on the Irving Stone novel with the same title), Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990), Loving Vincent (2017), At Eternity’s Gate (2018), and also Martin Scorsese’s depiction of Van Gogh himself in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). Of these films, I would argue that Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life delivers the best rendering, if for nothing else than the vibrant colors within, which much resemble Van Gogh’s painting. (One of the many stamps of Minnelli’s films is his often-energetic use of color.) Also, in terms of storytelling, the fact that the film is based on Irving Stone’s novel indicates that the subject will be rendered well, given Stone’s skill as a novelist.

In Lust For Life, Kirk Douglas plays a vulnerable Vincent, and it is a role one would not expect from the otherwise headstrong actor. Firstly, he is already too old for the part (albeit not as old as the sixty-something Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. Odd choice, given Van Gogh only lived to 37). In addition, Douglas is not known for his vulnerable roles. It is rare we see him whine. But despite this, he carries the performance well, and we get a sense of Vincent as the empathic individual who longs to help the poor, but who then stumbles into painting as an aside. He is misunderstood and rejected and attracted to outsiders like himself. Living on the fringe of culture, just barely does he manage via the help of his patient brother, Theo. […]

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The two male leads in Fat City (1972) by John Huston

The Sloven Dream Set in John Huston’s “Fat City” (1972)

There is something universal that is felt when one witnesses a failure. Maybe human nature causes us to fear that failure ourselves, as perhaps our insight is more so revealed through the near misses, rather than the home runs. As in Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, or the desperation and loneliness felt within Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, these characters long for more, and in doing so, they suffer. They seem aware enough of the outside to know that there is more, and that there could be more if only they had that missing something. Of course, very often they don’t know what that something is. Not to mention that the outside happens to be too brutal and harsh for their fantasy.

John Huston’s 1972 film Fat City is a great film that is not about a great man. Rather, he is a has been, and since his glory days, he has resigned his life to loser status. Stacy Keach plays 30-year-old Tully, a washed-up boxer who, since his glory days, has devolved into alcoholic stasis. Jeff Bridges plays Ernie, a young man ten years his junior, who seems up and coming but lacks backbone. The two men often mirror each other—on one hand, Tully has lost what he once had and while Ernie has some verve, he has yet to prove it. Perhaps Tully sees himself in Ernie and so he longs to get back into the ring to reprove himself to the world.

Neither man has a life worth envying. In one scene, Ernie is coerced by his young girlfriend into marriage. She is moody and distant and admits she is nervous that she might be pregnant. The scene is short, but one can see they have nothing in common—she merely wants to cook for him and see him everyday. That John Huston places the scene within a motionless car is important—they are going nowhere, and his marriage to her will likely also go nowhere. He might have a few boxing wins but then will resign to a life of mediocrity. […]