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 of the diegetic Jonathan Larson in Lin Manuel Miranda's "tick, tick...BOOM!"

Jonathan Larson & Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” (2021)

I’m certain that Jonathan Larson was an outstanding waiter. With his engaging, outgoing personality, he must have certainly earned a copious amount of tips in order to manage within his small, New York City flat. Working Friday through Sunday, he would then spend the rest of his week composing. A personal hero of mine, Larson is the mind and composer behind the rock musical Rent, which ran on Broadway for 12 years. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. It ran so long, in fact, that its success makes it easy to take for granted. But it wasn’t always this way. Larson, a musical theatre major, worked as a waiter and never deviated from his life mission (albeit not without his personal frustration). His goal was to write music and eventually break into the industry and this he did inevitably. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it.

tick…tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a Netflix Original musical, which renders the story of Jonathan Larson’s adult life, as well as his creative struggle. Set in 1990, just days before his 30th birthday, Larson is attempting to complete the final song within Supurbia, his first musical. He has been working on this musical for eight years, apparently. He lives in near poverty, wherein he can’t even manage his electric bill. At times, he feels like a failure for not having achieved the success he so covets, like that of his peers. Constantly comparing himself to earlier, younger musicians, the film recreates Larson’s One Man Show, wherein he details these frustrations—his creativity, his friendships, and his ‘career’ as a waiter while using them as creative fodder. ‘Hi, I’m Jon. I’m a musical-theatre writer. One of the last of my species.’ […]

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A stylized screenshot of the Stalker from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker"

Awakening & Escaping Happiness: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979)

In watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, I found myself missing a man I’ve never met, who died when I was only 10. He is one of those directors who, amid the visual, transcends film as a medium and moves it into something other, something ethereal, and something understandable. Yet, as for what that understanding is—it will vary upon audience. Upon rewatch (as I’ve seen the film a number of times), Russia invaded Ukraine only a day earlier. The sad news of events only adds to the film’s relevance. I also recently reviewed Antonioni’s Red Desert, wherein I refer to the human intrusion that has desecrated nature. By contrast, Stalker is almost a rebellion to all of that—nature’s uprise perhaps? After all, where do humans fit amid all this? Where exactly are we supposed to fall?

The story, shot in long, dreamlike sequences, is meant to immerse one into a sort of dream. (I often thought that watching a Tarkovsky film is the closest to observing dream.) The film, set in an unknown country in an unknown time, begins with a journey involving unnamed citizens. Stalker, Writer and Professor are the titles distinguishing these three figures who, in their search through the Zone (a site supposedly loaded with traps) contains a Room where one can wish for their secret desires to come true. The anonymity of the characters serves a purpose—that this could be any one of us. And what of the Zone? How do we interpret this place that is ever so difficult to navigate? Here, weeds are overgrown (according to human standards, anyway) and the flowers hold no scent. When the Writer is asked what he writes about, ‘My readers,’ he replies. […]

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A stylized photo of Arseny Tarkovsky smoking a cigarette.

An Initiation: On “I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky”

As someone with an affection for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I was eager to finally meet his father. I met him momentarily within Andrei’s 1975 film Mirror, but we barely got acquainted. Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-1989) held a huge place in his son’s life. And like with Jean Pierre Renoir, here we have another father-son dynamic wherein both are artists. Andrei admitted that his father’s work had a huge influence upon him, and how fortunate is that? To have a father who not only encourages the arts but also is an artist himself? In watching many interviews with Andrei, it is clear that he was a very sensitive soul. He loved his father and because his father’s work held such impact in his life, and he chose to honor him by using his work within his films. As example, take this poem from I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev), which is set against one of the more famous scenes within Mirror. […]

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A screenshot from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" of two characters arguing

Life, Death & Romance: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947)

I first heard about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir via Harry Nilsson, who appeared in the 1960s television series. Nilsson played—you got it—a singer who’d been forced to spend the night at this seaside abode due to impending rain and thunder. Such a strange concept, I thought. A ghost who haunts a woman he loves only in afterlife? I watched the episode, and aside from Nilsson’s performance, I found it dull. The show didn’t last and was cancelled after two seasons. Thus, imagine my surprise when I learned this was a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Really? They made a series from this film? How very odd.

Following recommendation, I watched it, and afterwards, I watched it again. And what a darling film this is. Love, death, longing, and romance—what else does one need? The film begins with Lucy (Gene Tierney), a widow who longs to live by the sea. Despite opposition from her in laws who want her to remain in London out of respect for her late husband, headstrong Lucy goes to purchase an abandoned cottage that is now overrun with four years’ vegetation. Gull Cottage, is what it is called, and it is supposedly haunted. In fact, no one is willing to stay there for more than a night. But upon Lucy’s visit, she falls in love with the house instantly, as though something is pulling her towards it. Oh, and what could this be other than Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison)? […]

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A shot of mother and daughter arguing in a car from Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017)

Her Identity of Place: On Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017)

When you are 18, your identity resides in the past. Where you are from, where you went to school, and who your parents are. You simply haven’t lived long enough to accumulate a string of accomplishments, nor have you had the opportunity to make enough life choices to define you. So, when you are uprooted at 18 and transplanted to a university—‘Where are you from? Where did you go to school?’—these are the questions asked. They serve as a shallow introduction—a way of establishing your place—of defining you—within these new surrounds.

Lady Bird is directed by Greta Gerwig, and I was familiar with her performance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), which is one of the most cinematically unattractive films I have ever seen. Shot in dingy black and white for no other reason than to evoke French New Wave, the film is typical Baumbach insomuch that you can almost hear him whispering, ‘This is a Noah Baumbach film. Expect it to be intellectual with lots of literary namedropping.’ His films are sciolistic in some way or other, but admittedly there was something about Frances Ha that made me enjoy it, despite its weaknesses. Perhaps that something is Greta Gerwig’s performance as the ambitious yet vulnerable Frances.

Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine, a high school senior who prefers to be called Lady Bird, rather than her birth name. The reason is never explained but we can gather that she doesn’t like her ordinary life and so this is her attempt to differentiate herself. ‘Do I look like someone from Sacramento?’ she asks. ‘I hate California.’ Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) works double shifts as a nurse and she takes her daughter’s words as a slight. ‘You have a great life,’ she informs. But Lady Bird, in midst of her longing, doesn’t see it. ‘I wish I could live through something. I want to go to the East Coast,’ she says. ‘I want to live where there are writers.’ ‘You can’t even pass your driver’s test,’ Marion reminds. (Gerwig, who is from California and attended university in New York, based Lady Bird on her own experience.) […]

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A shot of Monica Vitti against an industrial backdrop in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert"

The Human Intrusion: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert” (1964)

Prompted by the recent death of Monica Vitti (1931 – 2022), on a day my city shut down due to inclement weather, I re-watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. Outside, the streets iced into the night and through the blinds, I noticed that the sky glowed white. I then got to thinking that the notion of human seemed absurd, as who are we to battle nature? We hunker in our houses under heavy blankets in our defense against the outside. We are newcomers to this planet, after all. We arrive and then we depart, hoping that our presence has made some sort of impact.

Red Desert might be the most (anti-)nature film ever made. Set amid the grime of industrial plants, pollution, metal wire, and murky water, only the sky and wind remain intact. But that doesn’t stop humans from polluting it. ‘Why is the smoke yellow?’ the boy asks his mother. ‘Because it is poisonous,’ she replies. Monica Vitti plays Giuliana—a young mother who is undergoing trauma from a previous accident. Her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chonetti), works at the industrial plant she visits. It is a dirty and inhospitable wasteland, where grit and grime are the norm and where colored smoke fills the sky. She visits one day while the plant workers are on strike. Upon witnessing a man eating a sandwich, she offers to buy it even though he has already bit into it. Confused and fragile, something is amiss. […]

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A stylized screenshot from Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (2014)

Charlie Parker & The Drive For Greatness In Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (2014)

Few films address the drive required for artistic greatness. Rather, we are presented with notions that are nebulous—wherein so-called ‘achievements’ are validated via one’s desire to be famous. But greatness is not measured in fame. In the world of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, artistic craft exists as an objective thing, and certain musicians are notably better than others. Those who excel move on to First Chair. And those who can’t change their major to pre-med. (‘I guess he got discouraged,’ Fletcher says.) I must preface this by stating that I am not a musician, and so I am unable to comment on the accuracy and perfection of the playing therein. But I can comment on the writing, which is extremely accurate with regard to the intensity involved when one wishes to triumph. As example, when an artist strives for greatness, compromises must be made. Often, artistic achievement comes at the expense of friends, family, career and a social life.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student enrolled at Shaffer Music Conservatory. With saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955) as his hero, Andrew does not merely play the drums—he lives them. More than anything, he longs to be ‘One of the Greats.’ He desires this so much so that in an arrogant moment, he breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (whom he only seems to call when feeling good) on the basis that his drums are more important and that she would only get in the way. It is a cold move on his part but understandable, given his perspective. Paul Riser plays Andrew’s platitude-driven yet loving father who clearly does not understand him. Early in the film, the two are seated in a theatre as his father (Jim) pours Raisinets into a large tub of popcorn. ‘I don’t like the Raisinets,’ Andrew whispers, as he picks for the popcorn. ‘I just eat around them.’ Bemused, Jim looks at his son and responds, ‘I just don’t understand you.’ […]

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A still from C. Scott Lewis's "The Woodmans", a film on Francesca Woodman.

So Much Is Delicate: C. Scott Willis’s “The Woodmans” (2010)

In C. Scott Willis’s documentary, George Woodman asks with regard to his daughter’s posthumous fame, ‘Does her work deserve it?’ A painter himself, he admits, despite his support, to feeling overshadowed. But again, we must ask if her work deserves it? Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was a prolific photographer who died by suicide at the age of 22. In many respects, The Woodmans addresses (and challenges) numerous artistic clichés—the sad artist, the rejected artist, the need to feel special and unique. But more importantly, it addresses the need for one to forget the creator in order to appreciate the creativity. To not imbue too much personal tragedy into each and every frame. To allow—that is—to give the artist the opportunity for her craft to exist separate from her identity. (To not do so would be to disparage the importance of one’s brilliance.)

I am always underwhelmed by the lackluster attempts by so many artists. Writers especially can win the appropriate praise so long as they employ the correct politics or regard themselves in a certain way. That their work leaves one’s mind feeling like flat soda is irrelevant. This, I feel, is where the selfish (poseur) artist resides. Give me money. Give me attention. Give me a prize. Fame too comes at a cost—often at one’s integrity. They don’t care that they are boring so long as the perception (or so-called ‘experience’) suggests otherwise. […]