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Stylized portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh.

Low to the Ground: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

It’s not often that one encounters a novel constructed in verse. Of course, there have been many written over centuries, but they have also been labeled epic. They are often long, arduous and the protagonist undergoes numerous adventures, fights, defeats, and battles. Homer comes to mind. Virgil. The Epic of Gilgamesh. These verses are important works written by men. So, who is this Elizabeth Barrett Browning to attempt her own version of it? Are there any battles in Aurora Leigh? Not unless one considers her battle of self. Any great adventures? Not unless one thinks this when to traveling to London, Paris, or Florence. Any lands get overtaken? No. Are there any serfs in need of social justice at least? Alas, no. (Tolstoy is crying behind his ivory tower.) So, what is this novel in verse about exactly? Well, a young woman in search of finding her creative talent, a young woman feeling out of place, a passionate, emotional individual in search of someone to love. What is more important—to create or to love? Is there a place that occupies both? This is Aurora Leigh.

Already one can see how her novel/poem (I will from here on out refer to Aurora Leigh as a poem) was not taken seriously. Sure, there are some nice turns of phrases, but women don’t have the intellect or creativity to reach the highs men can. So, this is just a nice little poem she wrote as a distraction whilst cooking for Bobby and in no way does she rank alongside her more respected husband. Should you choose to quote me reader, I ask that you do not take what I just wrote out of context. Women have much to fight against. It’s not easy to feel second rate, or to not be taken seriously simply because of one’s gender. Partially the bias is due to her choice of subject matter (easily labeled ‘women’s topics’ in its time) but let’s be honest—had she written an epic in the more classic sense, that is, more in line with Homer, she would have been ridiculed. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh

This Verse In Fire Forever: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

Coming only a year after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it might be tempting to think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s over 10,000-lines-long novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh (1856) as a dated artifact at its very incipience. Yes, it is true that Whitman’s book (published in many different versions, one could argue that the work is one long text, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems) broke open the way for poetic modernity at its fullest and was utterly unlike anything else of its time. Browning’s poem-novel appears archaic, by comparison; almost a product of the preceding century. The same goes, somewhat, for its concerns: considered by many to be a foundational feminist text, and chock-full of progressive ideas (some of which are counter-balanced or ridiculed, to be sure) about womanhood and society-at-large, they seem positively timid beside Whitman’s radical and bawdy openness. Eros, logos, and pathos merged in one barbaric yawp, drowning out the almost courtly deliberations in Aurora Leigh. And forget Whitman: in many scholarly circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has yet to escape her husband’s shadow, in terms of literary achievement.

So, where, exactly, should Aurora Leigh reside in the vaunted Western Canon? After all, the late Harold Bloom hyperventilates over Robert Browning’s merely solid “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” but barely deigns to touch the work of his equally celebrated wife. But is this really the proper way to go about critical analysis? Sure, the temptation to knock Mrs. Browning down a few pegs for even daring to challenge her male “betters” persists – but is this temptation even worthy of serious consideration? […]

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A screenshot from Journey to the Beginning of Time by Karel Zemen

Art of Observational Narrative: Karel Zemen’s “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955)

There are many ways which narrative can thrive within storytelling. This sometimes can pose difficulty for certain American audiences who have been brought up on the Hollywood kind—plot first and character later. Thus, anything that falls outside this realm is labeled ‘boring’ or ‘slow-moving’. (Just think back to when Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life. The movie theatre I attended had to include a sign explaining to audiences that this was the work of an ‘auteur’, as a means of preventing walkouts.) Forget Tarkovsky or Antonioni. These are, in fact, filmmakers that one needs to work up to in order to appreciate. It also requires an open mind, but that is another essay.

Karel Zemen’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a Czech film that explores the wonderment of childhood through observation. Four young boys decide that they want to witness the world back in its prehistoric days, and so they take their logbook and their canoe wherein they quickly find themselves among floating chunks of ice amid the Ice Age. They spot a slew of creatures and even find a trilobite. Immediately, I was reminded of my own childhood wherein I set out one day to find ‘fossils.’ (I didn’t find shit.) But how fun would be if I had? The film uses almost cartoon-like imagery and puppetry, which adds to the childlike excitement and mystery. This is a children’s film and a highly intelligent one, at that.

So what of the narrative, then? Much occurs via observation—we are along for the ride. In fact, I can think of no other idiom to better describe this film. The boys adhere to their logbook, they bicker, they bond. Creatures appear and disappear and we are able to uncover both the era in which they enter as well as the species, thanks to their logbook. (Bison, mammoths, brontosaurus and flamingos are among some.) A paleontologist was hired for guidance and so the detailed accuracy is important, as the audience will come to trust the film’s expertise. Dream-like and fictional, the surrounds successfully appear as artifice and this works. We become part of their imagined world. […]

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A painting of a condemned Socrates, a historical gadfly.

Gadfly – Any Takers?

The dangerous man was on trial for impiety and corruption of the youth of the city, but he was calm even though he was facing a penalty of death. The charges were spurious, as the real reason he stood in the dock was that he was a gadfly, an irritant to the power and control of authority and he WAS dangerous—dangerous to the established order, the mores, the context of the society:

“And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the god, or lightly reject his favor by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the god; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires it to be stirred into life.”

So proclaimed Socrates in Plato’s “Apology”. He would be just one of a few of his breed to question the State and its citizens’ apathetic and lethargic approach to life and living. As he famously remarked in this dialogue, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The most important qualification for being a gadfly is being an impartial searcher for truth. One is not a gadfly if one simply criticizes and denigrates someone from “the other side.” A gadfly might, indeed, have certain political or social or cultural preferences, but that does not prevent the gadfly from critiquing “his or her own.” One cannot wear any label of identity, declare some “written in cement” position, have a rigid point of view, live in one’s own little box—and be considered a true gadfly. The TV shows, podcasts, news “specials” and the like do not even come close to this standard, as they are merely iterations on a theme: I am on THIS  side, the side of Good, Truth and Inerrancy; the Other side is Evil, always wrong, and needs elimination from public discourse. Other than Socrates, one good example is I.F. Stone. […]

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A stylized depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ done in colored lights

Jesus Is Born: The Christmas Story As Art

Luke 2:1 – 24 is the prophet Luke’s story about the advent of Christmas. But much more than just a factual account it is a story told artfully. This is especially true if we are talking about the King James version of the Bible.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Thus begins the story. It’s not, ‘Caesar decided to tax the folks.’ Luke sets the scene for a magnificent story to follow. Yes, it’s factual, but choosing those words, “all the world should be taxed” is a grandiose scheme by a king. What could top it? And we know what will outshine it.

In short order we are introduced to two of the major players, Joseph, a descendant of King David, and Mary, his betrothed who is with child. Our attention to Caesar is immediately upstaged by these two partially because King David plays a major role in the Old Testament and it has been prophesized that from his lineage a Savior will come. Luke calls Mary “his espoused wife” to flavor a nuance of the Virgin Birth. Expectations abound.

“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Hear the music of that. Something as everyday as childbirth is elevated to a major accomplishment. It is recognized that most people who are reading this account, are at least vaguely familiar with the story, but reading lines like that are a shot in the arm especially for believers. […]

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A screenshot from "Eyes Without A Face" (1960) by Georges Franju

Lessons In Vanity: On “Eyes Without a Face” (1960) by Georges Franju

Horror films have it difficult. On one hand, they have to be scary or at least creepy enough to hold one’s interest, and on the other, they have to contain characters well developed enough for audiences to care. Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) succeeds at both. While this is not a great film, it is quite good, and rare is it we find a film involving the so-called ‘mad scientist’ doctor that works. The film contains a gothic quality, where we observe and then we feel sorry. As for whom? Well, that all depends. 

Dr. Génessier, played by Pierre Brasseur, is a plastic surgeon who has developed a new form of face transplants—something he calls ‘heterografting’, which involves the removal of one living face and transplanting it onto another. In order for this to work however, both patients need to be alive, which makes it unfortunate for the donor. Dr. Génessier’s daughter is disfigured due to a car accident for which he is responsible. So now he is on a mission to find her a new face, but the only problem is that this requires him and his lover Louise (played by Alida Valli) to kidnap young women and then later dump their bodies into the convenience of the loud nearby river. 

Louise is one of his success stories, as Dr. Génessier managed to restore her face years earlier. And it should be noted that often these transplants don’t work, especially when the skin begins to reject the tissue. Édith Scob plays his daughter Christiane, who walks about in an expressionless mask, appearing as though she were a doll. ‘Kiss a doll and it won’t kiss back,’ she says. Only her eyes move and this gives her a haunting quality—she appears angelic and ghostlike, while she walks in white, behaving as though her life has ended. It might as well, as she lives imprisoned within her father’s house. Blaming her disfigurement, as bad as it is, this does not seem to be the worst of her problems. […]

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A screen shot of prison from the Lav Diaz film, The Woman Who Left

Home Again: On Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left” (2016)

The Philippines is not even a memory. I was a year old when they brought me to America, under circumstances still shrouded by vague detail, even at the age of twenty-four. Those islands live in distant waters called the past, and not even my own, but a past imparted to me in the monologues of aging women, or in the words of my father, who kept any talk of his childhood brief – too often were his words suddenly capped by the silence of memory, or the heat of a spiteful lecture.

We were a family on the move, never in one home for more than a few years, but the tattered and bulky photo albums stayed with us. My siblings and I often flipped through them, sometimes in amusement, and other times as if we searched for clues that could, if arranged correctly, direct us out of our displacement; could, in some way, solve the conundrum of our household’s misery. Were we conscious of this? Likely not, but an urge deeper than the entertainment induced by taskless boredom drew us back to these albums, nudged our fingers to trace bodies unwrinkled and darkened by an equatorial sun. Surely something more intense than a child’s easy delight brought our eyes time and again to the scenes of our parents’ wedding. Why did my father and mother, in our genesis, appear as strange to me as the strangers in the pictures? The church it was held in looked to be constructed solely by robust shadow and flashes of light revealing oddities: unfamiliar faces, clasped hands, frozen dancing, a gaudy cake our parents, close together, cut. My mother, bride-white, was very young, and her beauty (later burdened by five pregnancies and many separations) radiated so plainly there, even as a shade of the future seemed to haunt her joy.

Inside those albums were young, slim and smiling people who looked more like close relations to, rather than the younger versions of, those I knew as my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Something had trapped their vitality in keepsakes, rendering it as exotic to me as the world of heavy palm leaves, tin shacks and clubhouses surrounding them in the pictures. The Third World, they call it, and could it be truer? What else would you call a world that materialized out of nostalgia, heartache and slow chemical development? The phrase is normally bandied about in terms of economic deprivation, but from the beginning, whenever it was said, I felt the air out of a dream blow through me (“Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten…”). A dream, or a fairy tale, as my elder relatives often attached stern warnings to the stories of their former lives. Thus, the Philippines became less a real place than it did a repository of parables made for my moral benefit, locked away, again, by those distant waters called the past. […]

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A shot from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red

Chance, Hope & Somber Vigor: “Three Colors: Red” (1994) 

It is not so much the fragility of life but the fragility of chance that most affects us. Krzysztof Kieślowski was no stranger to this, as the idea of happenstance can be seen within his earlier films (Blind Chance, 1987, and The Double Life of Veronique, 1991). Just what would our lives be were we elsewhere or if we had not chanced upon another? Three Colors: Red is the final film within his Three Colors Trilogy and it is the most complex, as it works not just independently but also in concert with the other two. In his review, Roger Ebert notes: ‘In the trilogy, “Blue” is the anti-tragedy, “White” is the anti-comedy, and “Red” is the anti-romance.’ The beginning of Red is the shot of telephone lines and in them contain human voices, as they carry across continents. At any moment, we might join one another or our communication could break apart, thus rendering us alone and without contact. 

The film stars Irene Jacob as Valentine, a young model who longs for her out of reach boyfriend. We never see him—we only hear him over the phone, where he regards her indifferently. She tells him that she misses him but he responds with, ‘me too.’ Based on his coldness, he doesn’t love her but he still tells her that he might love her. ‘That’s not the same,’ she replies. One night, Valentine hits a German shepherd with her car. The dog is bleeding and the collar indicates that her name is Rita. Valentine frantically returns the dog to her owner—a reclusive, retired judge (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). Valentine pushes herself in when he does not answer the door. Upon the news, he reacts with indifference. She then takes Rita to a vet and comes to learn that the dog is pregnant. The Judge sends Valentine payment, but he sends more than the cost of the bill. When she goes to return his money, she finds him eavesdropping on his neighbor’s conversations. Chastising him, Valentine informs him that she pities him, but he realizes that it is more disgust that she feels. ‘People have a right to their secrets,’ she says.  […]