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A scene from Richard Linklater's "Boyhood"

Time Relaxes: On Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014)

he opening of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – a cloud-crowded sky and the stare of a boy – is one of vast possibility. Here is a yet-to-be shaped visage (with Coldplay crooning about stars and how they shine for you) captured in one of those indelible moments, no doubt, when time relaxes into some afterschool daze, and no other obligation exists save to lie down, dampened by grass, and to look around, thinking.

It is a moment most of us have felt, and probably longed for, if our childhoods were as frequently troubled as Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane), the young boy whose face will change over the course of the film, over the course of twelve years, but whose eyes will still somehow retain that same lingering sense of possibility.

This is a film about moments. About time, certainly, but really about how moments build up, over time, into people, relations, and everything else. Linklater’s decision to tell the story in a series of vignettes (partly a consequence of how the film was shot, I imagine) was a wise one, for it captures this process of moment-accrual in efficient bursts, letting the viewer make the appropriate connections in the intervening elisions. […]

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A shot of reindeer from Jacques Perrin's "Les Saisons"

Nature & Poetry Within Jacques Perrin’s “Les Saisons” (“Seasons”, 2015)

This planet has always been picturesque. Yet, what of the arrival of humans? What have they done to undermine it? One only need watch Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert to see. From factory to industry, we’ve made this world harsh, uninviting. Not to mention our impact upon global warming. As example, Central Texas recently had the highest number of tornadoes reported in a single afternoon. Outside, the air was thick and too warm for March. We know how it got this way, but more importantly, where will it continue?

Les Saisons is not quite a documentary, but more so an observational narrative. Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, this is the film for one who wishes to listen and observe. As example, the opening scene is that of the brutal cold, presumably during the Ice Age. We are given shots of bison that remain tenacious, yet partly frozen. They cower within their self-made corner in an attempt to create heat, whilst the wind overruns them mercilessly. ‘Winter has lasted 80,000 years,’ the narrator says. ‘In such hostile conditions, animals resist the freezing cold. Over this great expanse, traces of man are scarce.’ Then, we see an intricate pile of rocks that only humans could have made, which serves as a landing place for some owl. […]

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A stylization of Martin Guerre, French peasant, depicted in Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre.

Facts of a Face: on Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre”

The more one looks back, the more time crowds, with history itself entrapped. Ages slant, personal becomes personnel, while facts flourish. A writer writing about the distant historical past may find such a subject liberating as, already packaged, the facts never blur the way they do in moving time. Yet, art is never about the facts. What the historical fiction writer wishes were true plays as much a role as the truth itself. And, to make great art, the facts must always be a canvas, upon which faces ambiguate.

While reading The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis I was struck by how comfortable she was with facts. In this novella, Lewis crafts, with alluring prose, the case of Martin Guerre: a well-known historical episode in 16th-century France where a peasant woman was fooled by an impostor playing her husband for three years, after the real one’s disappearance years back. In about a hundred pages Lewis creates a simulacra of French peasant life, reinventing their customs and livelihood amidst lush nature. The extent of her research shows on every page. She follows Bertrande, the aforementioned wife, first as a young girl marrying Martin in one of those underage peasant marriages, then her married life, the years of loneliness after the disappearance, the deluge of doubts after the impostor’s reunion, and the case that unfolds when she finally brings her doubts before the French courts. Neatly packaged, The Wife of Martin Guerre terminates where sufficient: the real Martin Guerre returns at the last moment and is revealed to be a cur; the imposter is executed, even though he may have been a better husband to Bertrande; and the omniscient narrator of the story adds a bit of historical ambiguity to the ending with the following paragraph: “Of Martin Guerre, nothing more is recorded, whether he returned to the wars or remained in Artigues, nor is there further record of Bertrande de Rols, his wife. But when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.” Life returns to facts, plunged in their mystery. […]

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An example of nostalgia in graffiti: "I'll trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday."

Apricot Days: Nostalgia Is A Good Thing, Sort Of

Any good Zen Buddhist will tell you that “mindfulness” is the key to a healthy, peaceful, mellow life. Being in the moment means claiming and expanding the present moment instead of reaching back to the past to learn lessons and then projecting into a hypothetical future to apply those lessons. It is an interesting, if difficult, thing to contemplate—let alone accomplish, but it leaves no room some important human (all too human) characteristics: daydreaming, memories—nostalgia.

The definition and significance of nostalgia have changed since the original Greek roots of “homecoming” and “pain.” For centuries, it was considered a debilitating and potentially fatal medical condition expressing extreme homesickness. But the modern view (there is always “the modern view”) is that nostalgia is a good thing, for it provides important psychological functions, such as to improve mood, increase social connectedness, enhance self-regard, and provide existential awareness. There are numerous studies which attest to the benefits of nostalgia, but I would prefer to spend a moment on apricots. […]

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A shot of Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher.

The Quest For Control Within Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” (2001)

Few films successfully essay a troubled individual without resorting to sentiment. It is a difficult line when the subject is uncomfortable with closeness and yet the audience continues to act as voyeur. In Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert plays Erika Kohut, a respected piano teacher within a Vienna Conservatory. When we witness her publicly, she is confident and cold. Her students revere her. Her colleagues admire her. ‘A wrong note in Beethoven is less offensive than mangling the spirit of it,’ she says. But there is something deeper going on, and no, I am not referring to the sex parts. Rather, Erika suffers from pathological envy. Her mother, with whom she lives (as well as shares a bed) informs her daughter that she mustn’t let anyone be better than she. ‘If you want your pupils to have a career over you, no one must outdo you, my girl.’

These words are not to be overlooked, as we witness Erika’s contempt towards any pupil who might outshine her. She knows just how to break them down, too. No, she doesn’t scream like Fletcher in Whiplash, but rather uses their self-shame against them. Huppert is excellent in this role, as her austere face alone is enough to reveal her resentment. But it doesn’t stop there. When a young, handsome student named Walter Klemmer (played by Benoît Magimel) wishes to enter the Conservatory, she votes against him when her colleagues recognize his talent. They, however, override her decision and he becomes her student. She eyes him from afar and it is clear he idolizes her. Yet her knowing this is still not enough. When one of her timid female students (named Anna Schober) is overcome with stage fright, Walter goes to comfort her. As result, Erika silently seethes with envy. She cannot take it, and so she disappears into the coatroom, wherein she finds a glass and breaks it, dumping the broken shards into Anna’s coat pocket. One can only imagine what happens when Anna inserts her hand. […]

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A winter castle, ostensibly where Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of his best poems.

Rilke’s Late Winter

Earlier this year, exactly one century ago, holed up in his tower at Muzot, Rainer Maria Rilke was besieged by an onrush of creativity that resulted in all fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus as well as the long-sought-after completion of the Duino Elegies. An auspicious season for the poet, certainly, and one immortalized in poetic legendry – and I use that word on purpose, for while its historical occurrence is undeniable, Rilke’s constant invocation of the seemingly divine presence that inspired him (who first arrived to him in Duino Castle twelve years before, whispering that unforgettable opening line) wreaths this vital period in semi-mythic air.

Of the 20th century Great Poets, surely Rilke is one of, if not the most, beloved. His poetry is an outpouring of spiritual open-ness, rendering it generously receptive to believers of all creeds, although Rilke had rejected the religiosity of his childhood in favor of a mystical awareness or sensitivity to all things. […]

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A stylized shot from Robert Bresson's "A Man Escaped", depicting Fontaine being interrogated by a prison guard

Hours & Sound: On “A Man Escaped” by Robert Bresson (1956)

Few films contain the technique employed by Robert Bresson within his film A Man Escaped. In fact, Roger Ebert called it ‘a lesson in the cinema’, noting much what Bresson chooses not to do. Here, we are immersed within a prison cell and inundated with detail. Time and shadow are immanent. How one looks at you when your meal arrives could mean dire consequences. As a prisoner, one is forced beneath the brunt of whatever guard. As the days pass into weeks, moments carry a cautionary silence. Any sudden cough feels like an explosion.

François Leterrier plays Fontaine, a French resistance fighter who has been jailed within a Nazi prison camp. His expressions carry minimal emotion but his hands remain busy. In the opening scene, we see him attempt to escape from a car, but not before feeling the right push and press of the door handle. His motion is meticulous, deliberate and subtle and there is no music to accompany it. Events play out as they might in real life, where after enough tragedy, one will begin to suffer more from apathy than fear. […]

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A photo of a smiling Sayaka Murata, author of "Convenience Store Woman"

Strange Peg: On “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata (2016)

It’s a certainty that anyone who has worked within a corporate structure has met this person. Doggedly ideologically committed to their workplace, no evidence of a life outside of that workplace. These people are often the object of rumour-mongering, of conspiratorial whispering behind backs. They are often excluded, as they violate the complex, phatic social signals and performances that indicate a neurotypical/psychologically average person. It gets especially strange in jobs of little power or advancement. Then it seems to fill an odd vacancy in a person’s chest.

The quiet tyranny of behaviour is innate – the idea that if someone conformed to our idea of a well-functioning, emotionally healthy person, then they would suddenly find themselves just that. This is what probably what the modernists called the human condition. But neurochemistry is complicated, so is trauma. Who’s to say what makes a healthy person? Should we just leave the out-of-shape pegs be? These are questions worth exploring, but Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman leaves an absence where a meatier, or braver, or more articulate text could fit snugly. […]