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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The opening scene of rice-milk drawings from Jean Renoir's "The River"

The Romantic Longing within Jean Renoir’s “The River” (1951)

It is not easy for the child of a well-known artist to embark into his own successful, creative realm. Certainly this does happen, but what I mean is that the child of the so-called artist must manage on his own without need for the parent’s name to bring leverage. It is a tricky game, as one must thrive whilst not being in the shadow of someone else. (Jean Renoir is the son of yes, that Renoir—Pierre-Auguste Renoir—the renowned painter.) I mention this because when one is the son of a famous artist, there is always going to be a pressure to succeed and not be seen beneath the wing of the parent.

Whilst I have seen a number of Jean Renoir’s films, The River is my favorite and the most wonderful. Filmed in Technicolor, it is told from a young girl’s perspective—the romantic, distant dreamer. The innocence within offers a similarity to that of Renoir the painter, in that, this world is pleasant, beautiful and mostly without worry. There is the desire to remain young and within a kind of forever.

Patricia Walters plays Harriet, an upper-class British girl who crafts poems in her diary and dreams about the world from her lush Indian home set along side the Ganges River. Here, her world is peaceful and tranquil. She has a secret place where she escapes to write by candlelight. The film is set in the past, likely around the year 1946 following the War and we hear Harriet’s perspective in voiceover, told years later. Jean Renoir crafts his opening with Indian women using rice milk to draw circled shapes upon stone as the credits roll. And what a comfort this brings, wherein this world is about as far from War or turmoil as could be—yet it is not without the longing that accompanies one’s inward struggle. […]

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Stylized images of Herman Melville and Vivian Maier.

Vivian Maier, Herman Melville, & The Artist Underneath

‘We had no idea she was a photographer,’ said Vivian Maier’s employer. These were the words muttered during the filming of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013). It is the story of a woman who spent her life working as a nanny to only then be discovered posthumously as one of the greatest street photographers. ‘We didn’t know some creative person lived here.’ I don’t suppose, however, that anyone might have seen her walking about with her Rolodex in hand? Might that offer a clue?

While I don’t begrudge this individual for not knowing—or at least recognizing—that Maier might have had some creative inkling, to her employers and the outside world, she was ‘just a nanny.’ I mean, why would there be more? Could there possibly be some artist underneath? Or is this just another example of the arrogance of the non-artist? So what is this arrogance, then? We toil within in an image-driven world, where the thought of anything beyond what one sees does not exist. Maier worked as a nanny and so this is all she would ever be to those for whom she worked. Vivian Maier—Nanny Extraordinaire and nothing more.

I have only had one person of authority ever recognize something special about me. My high school English teacher—Mrs. Vaughan—she could see I had writing talent. Not only a teacher—she was an artist herself. Yet other than she, no professor, no employer, no supervisor ever saw anything more than how I outwardly appeared. Usually lacking in confidence, I’d labor among only to repeatedly feel misunderstood and forgotten. ‘But you don’t know what people think—perhaps they did see more,’ one might suggest. Alright, I’ll humor this a moment. ‘I know you,’ one of my supervisors said. Admittedly, her words made me cringe. She meant well, but whom did she know, exactly? I wanted to inquire but did not. I was, after all, forced into subservience, as I wished to keep my job. So, rather than address it, I continued to feel shoehorned into a culture I felt I did not belong. God forbid if my passion points to creativity over corporation. […]

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A stylized screenshot of Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith, in the film "Stevie" (1978)

Poetry’s Recitation, Reflection: Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith (“Stevie”, 1978) 

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) prided herself on her individuality. An iconoclast born Florence Margaret Smith, she lived her life in England and died of a brain tumor at age 69. She worked a publishing office job for 30 years until her poetic achievement allowed her early retirement. She never had kids nor did she marry. In fact, she shares similarities to both Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson in that all three women have an oddness (or is it fondness) about them. Stevie Smith’s verse is unique in that she uses a nursery rhyme approach whilst addressing sad or ‘dark’ themes, often with biting humor. It was rumored that she was a combination of high wit with a dash of the naïve. But then again, aren’t we writers all a bit of this?

Stevie (1978) stars Glenda Jackson as the lead and what a lead she is. Whilst this isn’t a One Woman Show, the film focuses much on the poet’s daily life, her relationship with her affectionate aunt (Mona Washbourne), her views on life, art and poetry. ‘Not a literary person,’ Smith says, with regard to her aunt. The two laugh it up over sherry and sometimes gin. At one moment, Stevie Smith rejects a marriage proposal from a male suitor, claiming that she is better as a friend. ‘I need to be away,’ she says. ‘But I always come back.’ […]

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A stylized screenshot of the two lovers from Jane Campion's "Bright Star"

The Long Longing in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009)

The life of a poet is rarely easy. Feeling unappreciated, unrecognized, misunderstood, allied with one’s inability to make a living—the list goes on. But for John Keats, he not only struggled at life but also at death. Succumbing to tuberculosis at 25, the early death of Keats is one of the great literary tragedies alongside other early deaths— Oscar Wilde, Buddy Holly and Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr. Just what might they have produced had they lived? Yet for Keats, his lush verse reveals an eager, sensitive mind that grew into one of the most well-known Romantic poets. 

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is not so much a film about romance as it is about longing. Roger Ebert describes the young couple as ‘Forever in Courtship’—that is, if only their lives together could be as strong as the love they both long for. The film’s title is taken from one of Keats’s poems, which he wrote for his love interest, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Keats (Ben Whishaw) is the artsy intellect who mutters artistic insights on a whim, whilst still conveying vulnerability therein. Whishaw is well cast, as he is thin, impoverished and handsome. He wears a dark, velvet coat and carries a top hat. He has a brooding introspection about him, and we can see this whilst he sits in the garden to write, often staring off into space for periods of time. What is he thinking about? Might his thoughts betray him? […]

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A stylized screenshot from James Huston's adaptation of James Joyce's "The Dead"

Distant Music: On Recollection, Ephemera & James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Can anyone claim a memory? Or tame it into something more familiar? We become anonymous—the ultimate air we move across. We ponder The Dead—because that is the ultimate. We are dead, or will be, inevitably. Not like this is some profound revelation, but rather, an invitation. A reminder that what lives is merely ephemera. And so, what of it? What do we become? There are those who move about in life as though they are dead already, and mostly, we care not to mention them. But they do exist, unfortunately. Work life is brimming with them. Corporate clones. I knew one, and he was one who would, in his attempt at comfort, actually make me feel worse. Projecting his convention, he’d remind me of all the ways I differed and why this was a problem.

‘You think you are stressed? This job is nothing compared to working as a computer tech,’ he said one afternoon, amid my duress. Of course, no one’s stress could ever compare to his. He’d then ask the trite questions. ‘Don’t you ever get FOMO?’

‘FOMO for what?’

‘So, you’re telling me that you really enjoy those old movies you watch? Like, you find them interesting?’

‘No, I like to be bored.’ Then he’d passively insult me mid-joke. If I didn’t laugh, he’d presume I didn’t get it. The joke was his attempt at redeeming himself. He was such a great and funny guy, after all.

It’s not that he was shallow, as shallowness requires a base—a platform from which to start. With age and time, one might hope that with enough depth, a shallow person could fill. But he would never fill. Rather, he was hollow—akin to a bucket full of holes. Submerge him and there will be nothing there—he will just float upwards whilst everything empties. I thereby concluded that he was already dead—albeit moving about in some sort of otherwise. His life would not even resort to memory, as no one ever observed him closely enough to recall. Who would care to, anyway? […]

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A stylized image from Gaslight (1944) by George Cukor.

Obscured by Fog: George Cukor’s “Gaslight” (1944)

Oh, there is a name for this?

This is the question I asked upon the first time I heard the term gaslight, that is, as a verb. Psychology Today defines it as:

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.”

Most often the victim will be told that what happened did not happen or that something, which was said, was not said. Over time, the victim will come to trust the abuser’s reality rather than her own. And this is a very coercive, dangerous form of manipulation—as what is one’s identity if not one’s memory and experience? If one’s memory is taken, who is she then? If she no longer has access to her experience, who has she become up until this point?

Taken from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play with the same title, Gaslight has since become part of the vernacular. However unlike the play, George Cukor’s adaptation is not set within the same small space, and thus we are not able to experience physically Paula’s claustrophobic isolation. Yet the film, whilst an excellent rendering, is also a fascinating glimpse into the psychological abuse that has come to be called gaslighting. So, yes, there is a name for this. […]

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A stylized screenshot from "Les Diaboliques" by Henri-George Clouzot

Honoring the Master: Henri-George Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” (1955)

At the end of his suspense thriller, director Henri-Georges Clouzot asks his audience one thing—to not tell your friends what you just saw. Tell them about the film, but don’t ruin the end. I’ve often said that the one who gripes about ‘spoilers’ in a film is an annoying twit and not someone serious about art. After all, it is about how the events unfold, correct? Not just what happens but how it happens. Yet, in respect to Mr. Clouzot, this underrated master, I will grant an exception.

Les Diaboliques is a film that is so good that it is hard to believe it was made by someone with so few films in his corpus. Few, that is, relative to his enormous talent. Clouzot knows how to grip from the very beginning. Whilst this is very much a narrative-driven tale, it is not some dumbed down whodunit like one might expect from Hollywood. But then again, I didn’t really need to tell you that, did I? In many ways, this film resembles a better Hitchcock. Rumor has it that Hitch had his eye on this script but Clouzot outbid him for the rights. And thank the devil he did.

Clouzot once said with regard to Hitch, ‘I admire him very much and am flattered when anyone compares a film of mine to his.’ Although both directors know how to employ suspense, in the case of Clouzot, the devil is in the detail. Les Diaboliques is set at a boys’ boarding school and one of the first scenes is that of a paper boat floating in a murky puddle. It is then smashed below the brunt of a car wheel. This might seem an irrelevant image, but it offers a great foreshadowing as to what might come, especially when examining the role that water plays within this film. […]

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A stylized shot from "Cape Fear" (1962) by J. Lee Thompson

The Envy of One Man’s Family: “Cape Fear” (1962)

What is the going rate for each year of your life missed? Or in the case of Max Cady (played by Robert Mitchum), eight years in prison? Of course, Max Cady is a psychopath, so he believes he was wrongfully convicted and now he must now punish his offending lawyer. Nothing is ever his fault. Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden, a successful attorney who seems to have the Norman Rockwell life. Large house, attractive wife and daughter—not to mention a prospering career—what more does a man need within this so-called American Dream? Well, perhaps a psychopath to taunt him.

It is always interesting to experience a remake before the original. Scorsese remade Cape Fear in 1991 and while not a bad film, it is most definitely not one of his best. From what I recall, the direction is rather lackluster and has more of a ‘made for television’ feel. Gone is the implication and subtlety. And despite De Niro’s skill as an actor, Mitchum is far more clever and convincing in his role of vindictive evil. Yet, poisoning a dog and harassing a family is only evil from our perspective because according to Cady, Sam Bowden deserves what he gets. 

Cape Fear begins with a wonderful noir feel, and much of it is accomplished via Bernard Hermann’s score (who also created the score for Taxi Driver). We witness Cady walking into a courthouse, but not before ogling several women’s asses. While on a stairwell, an older woman with a stack of books drops one and Cady doesn’t bother to help her. Already we see he is an asshole. And now, after having served his time, he is a free man. Or is he? Legally this is the case, but damn if he is going to allow that arrogant lawyer, Sam Bowden, to get away with it. […]