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 a miner's wife smoking in a cigarette from Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, USA".

They Too Are We: Reviewing Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” (1976)

Too often it is easily taken for granted certain life ‘luxuries’ that should otherwise be considered necessities—electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, and surviving without the limits of poverty. I am always agog when I hear the rich say, ‘Well, I worked hard for my money,’ as if to imply those who undergo poverty don’t work hard. Rather, those who struggle are often stuck in dead end jobs, remain prisoners of their town, and then there are the coal miners who undergo a daily suffering on another level altogether—long hours, low wages, black lung disease, and daily dangers are just some of the problems, not excluding their meager means of living—no decent home with clean, comfortable rooms and a bath. ‘Why don’t they just get out and leave?’ someone might ask. Well, without the financial resources, there is not much freedom for those living on meager wages.

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA is a must-see documentary that showcases the seminal moment when the Harlan Kentucky coal miners joined the United Mine Workers of America, only to have Duke Power Company refuse to sign. Thus came the strike and the picket line. And that is what this film is about—commiseration, unity, fairness, and joining together for a greater good. The many little Davids who must stand up to this impending Goliath who, with its ‘electricity burning over there—there’s someone dying everyday for it.’ […]

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A shot from René Laloux’s La Planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet) of a Draag falling asleep next to an Om child.

Ethereal Circle: On René Laloux’s “La Planète sauvage” (“Fantastic Planet”, 1973)

There are some animated films that are not made for kids. In fact, some are not even made for most adults, and this may be one of them. So, let us not be mistaken that René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is, on all accounts, a savage and violent tale where humans (called Oms) are nothing more than tiny animals forced to bend to the whims of larger, more ‘sophisticated’ creatures, called Draags. Within this post-apocalyptic world, the Draags rule and humans at best are regarded as nothing more than pets and at worst, they are vicious vermin deserving of extermination.

Fantastic Planet opens with a frightened human (Om) mother running with her baby. She appears terrified, and in her attempt to find safety, she climbs up a hill, only to then be pushed down by some large, blue hand. Once more, she attempts to climb, and is pushed down again. Still clutching her baby, the hand then flicks her several feet away. Suddenly, the blue fingers lift and drop her, wherein the force of the fall inevitably kills her. ‘What a shame. We can’t play with it anymore,’ says a group of three Draag children. Following that, a young Draag child and her Draag leader father approach the scene. The Draag child (Tiwa) asks if she can keep the orphaned baby Om as a pet. ‘Why is he crying, father?’ she asks. ‘He must be scared. Or hungry,’ her father replies. He allows her to keep the baby Om, but instructs, ‘You must take care of that animal.’ […]

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A boy and girl with red and blue balloons pass each other by in Albert Lamorisse's "Le Ballon Rouge".

The Whimsical Wonderment of Albert Lamorisse’s “Le Ballon Rouge” (1956)

The first time I watched Le Ballon Rouge was in French class my junior year of high school on VHS. The assignment was also accompanied with a text version of the same story, wherein I had to answer questions (en français no less) about this young boy having gained and lost a red balloon. And while I tended to reject most of the ‘higher art’ thrust onto me as a child (I distinctly recall falling asleep in the back seat of a rental car while driving through some European country as a 13-year-old, as example) I always remembered this film.

Ok, so what is there to say about this 34-minute film that contains little to no dialogue? Well, firstly Le Ballon Rouge is told via the perspective of a child (played by the director’s son, Pascal) in how it portrays both wonderment and dream. We open with a still shot of early morning in Ménilmontant, a neighborhood of Paris in the aftermath of World War II, wherein a young boy enters the screen and leans to pet a small gray cat. Then, from above, he witnesses a large, red balloon whose string is tangled in a street lamp. The boy, in effect, ‘saves’ the otherwise trapped balloon, and this results in a friendship. The balloon, which takes on a life of its own, develops a loyalty and even perhaps a love for the boy, as the two navigate the streets. At times, the balloon plays games and races ahead, only to then stall and hide within a corner in its attempt at peek-a-boo. As they continue on, the boy encounters street folks—young and old—and indeed seems out of place in this world of ‘grown ups.’ […]

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A stylized shot of Sinan (Doğu Demirkol) sitting with books in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "The Wild Pear Tree" (2018).

Longing & Regretting: On Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “The Wild Pear Tree” (2018)

‘Have you seen The Wild Pear Tree’?

These are the words I have been continually asked ever since its 2018 debut, and my answer has always been, ‘I will upon access.’ Well, now the time has come. Firstly, I shall begin by saying that Nuri Bilge Ceylan is likely the greatest living filmmaker. Yes, there are others, like Steve McQueen, but The Wild Pear Tree not only captures the depth and breadth of Tarkovsky and Bergman, but its unique imagery and dialogue illuminates. It has been said that Ceylan claims to enjoy ‘really long, boring films.’ I presume that when he said this, he was referring to what is perceived as such according to the average person’s taste, because upon watching The Wild Pear Tree (which finishes in just over three hours), this film is everything but boring. But…let me begin.

The film stars Doğu Demirkol as Sinan who has returned to his hometown after graduating university. Word has it that he has written a novel, or rather, ‘literary reflections’ that he seeks to publish. His father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), works as a teacher but has a fantasy of living off the land, away from the city. He seeks to retire, but in the interim he is fixated on finding water at the bottom of a well. One afternoon, Sinan assists at the well begrudgingly, as he knows the neighbors think his father is ridiculous. Yet at the same time there is an underlining resentment that Sinan feels when it comes to his father’s gambling habit. (All done for the intention to someday live out this ‘living off the land’ fantasy.) […]

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The priest in Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest", played by Claude Laydu, looking down in his room with a crucifix hanging to his left.

A World of Green Trees: Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951)

Robert Bresson is a director who does not veer from the suffering a character must undertake at the cruelty of others. This is most prominent in The Trial of Joan of Arc, Mouchette, and Au Hasard Balthazar where we witness some being—be it person or animal—that is beaten under the brunt of some hostile society. Within all three films, each ends in dying or death. No one seems to have any empathy for the one suffering. Yet within Diary of a Country Priest, the ‘little priest’ as he is condescendingly referred to, undergoes very much the same. Unlike the pastor in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the priest’s faith remains unwavering, as he desperately claims to need prayer like ‘oxygen in his blood.’

The priest, played by Claude Laydu, is somber, morose, and moves about quietly and helplessly. His illness leaves him physically weak. He only smiles once in the film, and that is when he is on a motorcycle. Roger Ebert notes that this is the moment that perhaps rekindles his childhood. Memories of his youth, when there must have been an earlier joy. He has chosen this vocation on purpose, but for what purpose is this? Has Christ abandoned him just as well, as he remains in this otherwise small, petty, country town? Meanwhile, the locals leave threatening notes ordering him to leave. […]

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A stylized, sepia portrait of Australian poet Judith Wright, from a screen-grab of an Australian television interview.

Stand Like Trees: The Overlooked Poetry of Judith Wright

When in search of ideas, one will seek those artists whose work carries a craft, music, and intellectual heft. But what of that? In time, politics dies as it ages with the current mores. Ultimately, the work that thrives is that which can be read and reread. While this observation might seem obvious, it is not so when one thinks of the publisher who, amid ‘good intentions’, utilizes image for a book sale. In fairness, most publishers resort to this, albeit the academic carries it under the guise of ‘good intention’. Everything is subjective, and as long as the politics are appropriate, craft is not only irrelevant, but doesn’t seem to exist.

Perhaps this is why Australian poet Judith Wright has been so overlooked. While she does have poems on feminism, it is not Academic Feminism. Nor does she resort to political screeds. Instead, she focuses much on nature, which I suppose is considered passé. (But then, so did a small-named poet called Emily Dickinson.) No, I am not referring to the nature triteness of Mary Oliver (who is easy to parody—just talk about light, birth, plants, and some dull feeling of renewal while walking in the woods). Yet as contrast, here is a Wright poem that I have regularly revisited, especially when writing my most recent collection. […]

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Sixto Rodridguez walking down a street in Detroit wearing sunglasses, as depicted in Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching For Sugar Man".

For the First Time: Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)

As an artist who has yet to be recognized for my achievements, and as someone who also knows other artists who have yet to be recognized for theirs, I have long adhered to the belief that quality rises in the end. To what end, you might wonder? Well, within me there is this idea of the ultimate. And with this, there is the notion that my most dedicated readers have yet to be born. Not only has this comforted me, but also it has contributed to my need to keep going. (If, for nothing else, I owe it to them—my future readers.) Furthermore, I have also battled the reductive belief that fame equals quality. Because as we have seen, it is not uncommon for great artists to go overlooked in the immediate, only to be discovered later by the future generations who will appreciate them. Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 documentary on the musician Sixto Rodriguez, demonstrates this. […]

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A stylized shot of the lead actress staring in amazement at a rocket model in Mick Jackson's "Temple Grandin".

From Inside The Visual Mind: On Mick Jackson’s “Temple Grandin” (2010)

‘I don’t want my thoughts to die with me. I want to have done something.’ These are the quality words within Temple Grandin’s biopic that I found most illuminating. While there have certainly been other quality words within other quality biopics, this one in particular stands above in how it depicts the internals of a creative mind. Most biopics portray the person from the outside—be it Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson—and while this approach can offer very good films, Mick Jackson’s Temple Grandin archives something unusual. How, exactly, does this person think? How does she process her thoughts? Visually, the film succeeds in showcasing this.

Mary Temple Grandin (played wonderfully by Claire Danes) was born in Boston to a wealthy family. As an autistic child, Grandin herself has said that she would have been sent to an institution were it not for her mother’s objection. ‘She is different, not less,’ her mother, played by Julia Ormomd, insists. From a young age, Temple is non-verbal. In fact, she did not speak until she was four, wherein since then she’s only been able to see the world via pictures. Language and math are useless to her—too abstract. (She fails algebra and French—‘Why is there so much fish in France?’ she asks, with regard to the ‘il’ pronouns.) But everything she has ever seen she can remember via images. ‘Can you bring everything you’ve seen into your mind?’ her science professor asks. ‘Sure. Can’t you?’ the bemused Temple responds. […]