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 shot of Robert Frost from Shirley Clark's "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World"

Choose Your Quarrel: Why Creativity Can’t Be Taught

With so many grave events in concurrent quarrel, it seems futile to complain about the state of the arts. Where has the quality gone? The critical thinking? The investment in craft? There is this myth that a university education will somehow offer not just critical thinking but a segue into creativity. Those who believe it confuse didacticism with vision. They place too much trust in institution. I, too, was guilty of this, until I witnessed so much incompetence emerging from writing professors. (I once saw a poem by a PhD in English Literature that began with the line, ‘The heart is a treasure box.’) Deep, huh? Does that sound like someone with good, creative advice? Someone from whom you could learn?

My best educational experience was my high school English teachers. My senior year teacher, especially, had a very smart and fluid mind and I find it interesting that her college major was not literature but fine arts. Mrs. Vaughan. She was a painter, yet she could make connections in literature that I never witnessed from my university professors. Following graduation, I entered university as an English major in the hopes I’d become a great writer. I dropped it after one semester, partly because I did not want to work in a bank. ‘Every English major ends up working in a bank,’ I was told.

But this wasn’t the reason I dropped it, mind you, as I realize the hyperbole in that statement. (Yet admittedly, working in a coffee shop with a mound of debt due to a liberal arts degree did not sound appealing.) Whilst my university time was before ‘the art is only as good as one’s politics,’ I just didn’t feel like I was learning anything that I couldn’t teach myself. I had one professor who was so stolid in his thinking that he would give us quizzes over literary assignments that were detailed to the point of ridiculousness. Basically, one would have to memorize a play in order to pass it. What is the point? Talk about stripping the love from literature—no wonder no one wants to read. Eventually, we students suggested he speak about themes rather than facts. So, he proceeded to write on the board: THEMES 1), 2), 3). Amid such rigidity, how did he miss his calling as an accountant, exactly? (No wonder the banking analogy.) […]

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A shot from King Hu's "Raining in the Mountain"

Without Rain: King Hu’s “Raining in the Mountain” (1979)

Allow me to preface by stating that not only is this my first time seeing a King Hu film, but also that I am not terribly familiar with martial arts films. While I spent a number of years watching Japanese samurai classics, they are not martial arts films. Martial arts cinema is primarily combat-driven, while King Hu manages to transcend many of the limits of the genre, ensuring Raining in the Mountain remains one of the better films within this niche.

The film takes place during the Ming Dynasty, within a remote mountain village where there is a monastery. Nestled within the deeply embedded forest, already something is amiss—the Buddhist principles of peace, the remote beauty, the places to where one can retreat and yet—perception is not reality. It is not long before we notice that those who inhabit this holy place are actually in competition—bargaining, bribing, betraying—all with their own individual agenda and form of marshaled violence.

The coveted item is a sacred handwritten scroll that is supposed to be worth a lot of money. How much exactly we don’t know, and nor does it matter. Individuals who were brought to protect the scroll are soon attempting to steal it for themselves, and so begins an affected display of the film’s well-choreographed combat, coupled with sensationalized sound and nature background. It’s not that the scroll itself is evil, per se; it’s just that it seems to cause everyone around it to become evil. However intended or not, the scroll merely is, despite how everyone goes on about it. […]

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A shot from Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's film, The Red Shoes (1948)

Lost Within a Maze of Ballet: “The Red Shoes” (1948)

There are some films where the audience remains a witness, where we sit off to the side and marvel at the lives of those we see on screen. And then there are the films that are so overwhelming in their immersion that, to quote Roger Ebert in his review, ‘You don’t watch it, you bathe in it.’ Perhaps ‘bathe’ seems too sensational a word, and it just might be, were it not for the grand use of Technicolor coupled with the marvel of this single dancer, Victoria Page (played by Moira Shearer) flowing in glory. The 1948 film is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale with the same title, wherein a young girl is given a pair of red shoes that goad her to dance. So, she dances and dances until she is forced to amputate her feet, and even after doing so, her feet continue to dance on their own. Like many of Andersen’s tales, the story has a gruesome end, and perhaps this film is not too far off.

On one hand, The Red Shoes is a story of ballet—the desire to succeed and to be seen, and on the other lurks the desire to be happy, loved and fulfilled. For some, artistic success and love go together and for others they are forced to choose. Victoria falls in love with a young composer named Julian Craster, and for a time she seems happy. Yet this would not be a film were it not for the tension of one’s artistic drive over one’s life. Ingmar Bergman once said that he could live in his art but never in his life. For Victoria, it seems she can have one or the other, but not both.

She and Julian are forced to keep their romance secret from the company’s impresario who seethes with apparent jealousy. And yet, he never appears to have romantic feelings for Victoria, or if he does, he is poor at showing it. The character, played by Anton Walbrook, possesses just the charm, and the correct kind of cunning. He is manipulative and underhanded, but only at a distance. One might guess the source of his jealousy stems from his belief that Victoria is his alone, as in, his dancer, his possession. He made her a star, after all. ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never,’ he informs her. Just as within a fairy tale, his so-called gift of stardom has a price. […]

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A shot from Billy Wilder's "The Apartment"

The Risk of Too Much Pleasing: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960)

‘There are some who are takers, and then there are some who get took,’ says Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment. And so goes Billy Wilder’s 1960 witty classic, where we are given a black and white world of work-life drudgery, typing pools, aloof executives and the onlookers who long for any advancement as a way out. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a guy who memorizes facts—like how many people there are in New York City and how long they would stretch if he were to line them together. ‘They would reach Pakistan,’ he says in his opening narration. Useless would be a word to describe this sort of knowledge. And useless could very well be a word to describe him, were it not for his apartment. In fact, he better make himself useful, lest he never get that raise or windowed office.

It’s not that Baxter hates his job—working amid a slog of desks that evokes Franz Kafka. (Orson Welles directed The Trial two years after The Apartment). That Billy Wilder might have influenced his direction is obvious.) He is too upbeat for that—so to speak. Yes, we know underneath the facade that he is lonely and miserable, but for the sake of promotion, or at least the hopes of one, he must remain positive. See, he has this apartment in NYC that many of the higher-ups know about. Not only do they know about it, they depend on it for their evening trysts. Baxter allows them to frequent his abode in the hopes that they might promote him someday. It gets so bad, in fact, that when he actually needs his own apartment due to feeling ill, he is once again manipulated into loaning it out. […]

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A scene from Victor Erice's "El Sur"

Revisiting Childhood Memory Within “El Sur” (Victor Erice, 1983)

We often remember our childhood within a series of vignettes. Some might say that it is not what we remember but how we remember that determines not just our childhood, but also our life perspective. Moments enter us and then they flee without even a goodbye. Then, we don’t necessarily recall the narrative, but rather, we remember the emotional impact some moment has had. Victor Erice’s 1983 film El Sur is a masterpiece that involves just this. The film takes place within the mind of a child who, in recalling her father, remembers only select parts of their time together. We see pieces of him, but only through her eyes, and as an audience, we come to realize him as an enigma—that is, only as how she sees him. We do not know much, save for what she—Estrella—has experienced.

The story begins in 1957 when Estrella is a young child. The Spanish Civil War still lingers from two decades earlier, and we see that this young girl longs for her father (Augustin), a doctor who she believes has magical power. Yet Victor Erice’s film is not about magical realism as much as it is about childhood romanticism. Estrella romanticizes her father—this distant man who only reveals himself in piecemeal. He is private and aloof, distant and detached. And while he does not carry coldness, he seems preoccupied within his own mind. […]

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A shot of Emily Dickinson from Terence Davies's "A Quiet Passion" (2016)

The Writing Life of Emily Dickinson: Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion” (2016)

It is not easy to create a clever biopic on an artist, much less one that spent most her later years confined to her bedroom as a recluse. One of the many reasons that artist biopics fail is because the writer/director chooses to include too much—sort of a crib to coffin approach, wherein we are only given surface events, rushed timelines and bad accents. This, however, does not stop the artistic mind from occasioning these films as comfort. How many films on Van Gogh do we need? Is anything new uncovered? Any insights? Probably not, yet audiences will continue to witness.

So, one can imagine my delight in learning that there was not only a biopic on Emily Dickinson, but also one that is excellent in itself. One way to measure this is to ask if the film could stand alone without the biography. Is the writing enough to carry it? For Terence Davies’s 2016 film A Quiet Passion, it is. We all know the story of The Belle of Amherst—that she did not title any of her poems, that she used random capitalization, random dashes, that she would write on the backs of receipts and napkins, and dutifully organize her poems into collective heaps tied with string. She was known to wear only white amid her later years and up to the very final days of her death, to never leave her room.

Emily Dickinson is the first poet that ever moved me, and quite possibly the only poet that could have gotten me into literature at all. Sure, this is speculation, as perhaps I would have managed another entry into literary lavishness, but for me it was Emily. I even had the Julie Harris readings on cassette, which I would play as I slept. (Given to me on my 16th birthday, I believe.) […]

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Paintings by Hilma af Klint, as depicted in Halina Dryschka's "Beyond the Visible" (2019)

Neglected, Rejected: Hilma af Klint in “Beyond the Visible” (2019)

‘Have you ever heard of Hilma af Klint?’ I asked my painter friend. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have mentioned her many times. A great artist. A Revolutionary.’

Regrettably, at the time I did not recall his mentioning her. I then went on to explain that witnessing a documentary on a subject is an entirely different experience from hearing one’s name. In fact, I even mistyped her name as Klimt, rather than Klint, and I shamefully wondered if she was related to Gustav. Oy!

I begin this essay admitting that I am not a painter and nor am I experienced enough with Abstract Expressionism to be able to render some sort of judgment on it, outside my limited purview. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have opinions.

I stumbled upon Halina Dyrschka’s 2019 documentary Beyond the Visible while surfing the Criterion Channel. Although I felt some initial trepidation due to the film’s labeling af Klint an Abstract Expressionist, (curious she might be another Rothko wannabe) how wrong I was. So, I went ahead with this both enjoyable and illuminating experience. Apparently, my not hearing of Hilma af Klint is nothing extraordinary. Nor have many, according to the documentary. Born in 1862 in Sweden, af Klint lived a quiet life, where she painted in private and withheld much of her work from public eye. […]

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A stylized portrait of Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr.

Early Glimmer: The Young Writer’s Potential As Seen In Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr.

Creative talent is not always easy to assess. At least not immediately. Rather, it is something more nuanced—something that requires not just practice but also understanding. (And this applies to both the creator as well as the percipient.) ‘Great art demands great audiences,’ Whitman said. And when attempting to assess talent, one must take into account the age of the creative individual.

‘Wait—but you have always said that what matters is what is on the page and that the artist is irrelevant! And here you are making excuses! A hypocrite you are!’ Hold tight, jerk-face reader. While this is true—that all that does matter is what is on the page, the age of the individual must be taken into account in order to render some sort of judgment with regards to talent. That is, one’s mere creative potential. As example, if a teenager writes a poem, it will invariably be filled with some sort of cliché. Not always, mind you, but one would be hard pressed to uncover an exception.

When young people have sent me their writing, I often focus on the phrasing—is there the occasioned good turn of phrase in midst the cliché? Is the young writer attempting something interesting? Or is this just another generic ‘I hate the world because my parents made me clean my room’ poem/story? Or another bad rip-off of Plath? Does this person seem to have a rawness within that only needs the nurture of dedication and study? Or are these clichéd works written by someone in their adult years still lauding the lazy, inarticulate Bukowski? […]