Classical Romance and Feminism in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s quite a fascinating thing to watch Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire in our current day pandemic and masks environment. There are some accidentally eerie scenes on a beach early in the film (as opposed to the deliberately eerie scenes later in the film where ghostly visages of a bride appear in dark hallways) where our main characters, a female painter and her female subject, wear masks to protect their faces from the wind and stay for the most part six feet apart or more. Here the social distancing is a function of repression and social mores, the masks another costume accessory.

The costumes, setting, and social mores on display in this very French film are beguiling. Sciamma uses them, along with how she places and moves her characters in frame, to build tension. The film is deliberately quiet with no music score, so that the tension builds its own rhythm, and so that when music does appear au naturelle (like women breaking into a chorus chant on a beach at night, or during that bravura closing scene where the camera fixates on a woman’s reaction to a particular piece of music performed by an orchestra) it’s like a jolt of emotion. Others films have made this bold choice before, but Sciamma employs it in a most novel way. Likewise, nods to, and techniques used in, everything from other feminist yarns like Jane Campion’s The Piano (the opening at sea), to Scorsese classics (that “hands reaching for each other” scene transition from the campfire to the cliffside is immaculate), to Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (that closing shot!) are combined in some strange and beautiful alchemy as if they are being used for the first time. The characters echo this as their affair begins, musing about how every lover must think they’ve created something new.

But there’s nothing truly revolutionary here. It’s all very classical and romantic. It just moves the viewer in a novel way through the sheer force of Sciamma and her actresses’ wills. The performances are fantastic. The side-stories (like the maid’s unwanted pregnancy) are presented with a humanist bent. Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory, maybe second only to Nina Hoss singing “Speak Low” in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently streaming on Hulu.

Lost Girls on Netflix and The Escape to Candyland

The new Netflix film Lost Girls takes an interesting look at the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case from the POV of one of the alleged victim’s mother. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film gets off to a choppy start, but once Amy Ryan takes control and begins her mission to find her missing daughter, her impassioned performance raises the film beyond your standard psychological thriller melodrama. The supporting performances are also very strong, with the cast making the most of roles that would’ve benefited from more fleshing out in a longer format.

The material here is probably better suited for a miniseries, but I enjoyed the film’s compactness and some of Garbus’ moody visual choices for lighting, framing, etc… This is one of those sad but true tales about young women being marginalized and victimized, and the “stronger-than-they-thought-they-were” women in their families becoming their voice after they were silenced. Ingrained misogyny and corruption, as well as the mishandling of mental health issues are brought to light as the women champion for the murdered girls…but sadly to no avail as of yet beyond the story being shared.

Many of the stories in Yong Takahashi’s new collection The Escape to Candyland swirl around the marginalization and victimization of women as well. A good portion of the stories deal with women who were brought up in a corrupt and cultish crime ring headed by a pastor and yogi in Atlanta. These characters could’ve easily ended up like the women in Lost Girls.

Combined with other tales of immigrants, the marginalized, and the mentally or emotionally troubled, Takahashi’s stories make for an interesting read.

Both the film the short story collection standout because of their POVs. They both make it clear that these are voices that need to be heard…deserve to be heard. These are stories that are all too commonly swept under the rug.

The haunting line from Takahashi’s story “Sacred Places” rings true for all of these girls and women:

“We’ve lived our lives like compressed balls of yarn, twisted and knotted together, unable to separate ourselves from each other. Once I let my secret go, all the others will unravel.”

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Fiona Apple Has Released the Perfect Album for Quarantine with Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, from the incomparable genius that is Fiona Apple, dropped yesterday, and I instantly downloaded it to listen to while catching up on work emails late Friday afternoon. As excited as I was about it, and as much as I’ve always loved Apple from the time both of us were teens and she released Tidal, nothing could prepare me for how brilliant the album would be. I, of course, started to babble about it on social media, re-listened to favorite tracks in the evening, posted a review on Amazon, and swam in my thoughts well into the sleepless night. Was it Fiona’s lyrics or the Venezuelan food or the normal quarantine panic keeping me up?

The bulk of the Amazon review has been integrated here, but reflecting a day later, I wanted to collect my thoughts and provide more context.

I have many fond memories of listening to Fiona Apple’s sophomore album When The Pawn… self-quarantined in my college dorm room thinking deep, deep thoughts. It was a landmark album. “Get Gone” and “I Know” remain amongst my favorite songs of all time. The album I could listen to straight through tomorrow and it would seem as fresh as that first day I listened to it in my dorm room.

Fetch the Bold Cutters arrives over twenty years later to a world under quarantine, and it too is a landmark album. It is the perfect album at the perfect time. Apple recorded it in her own self-quarantine with only a select few friends and bandmates (and dogs, barking seemingly on cue at the end of one track) at her home over recent years, reflecting deeply (as she always does) on her life, relationships, career, fears, wants, and forgiveness.

Like When the Pawn… Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…

Ladies, ladies, ladies…she sings…yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.

Another track, “Relay”, which apparently has been tossed around since Apple was a teen, seems like an anthem for all this is wrong with the world today. Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch she echoes over and over.

Originally slated for an October release, Apple convinced the studio to release this in April because why wait when the world is under a global pandemic shutdown? People need music, and escape, and we need to be allowed to think deep, deep thoughts. A lot of the professional reviewers are marveling at the experimental rawness, but I found it to be more polished and refined than advertised. It certainly is playful with percussions, happy accidents and background noises, but it all gels and her voice sometimes screaming and sometimes whispering and barely there, still sounds great and classically trained more often than not. What I loved the most is the dark sense of humor and the emotional vulnerability of her lyrical wordplay. Apple is at her most cunning and clever…and this is a masterwork. This is by far her best since When the Pawn…and perhaps the apex of her long gestating craft.

My favorite tracks:

  • I Want You To Love Me
  • Under the Table
  • Relay
  • Ladies
  • For Her
  • Drumset

But there is something to savor and reflect on in each of the rich, complex, surprising tracks.

A real treasure in these strange, strange times.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

The Timely and Timeless Dramas On Sal Mal Lane

On a relatively quiet street in suburban Sri Lanka children play, parents brood, and old folks reminisce while the storms of an inevitable civil war seem to gather on a different planet. But those dark clouds will eventually cover everything, and the children’s haven will be forever shattered, and soon peace only reachable in their imaginations.

The context of Ru Freeman’s heartbreakingly beautiful, intimate, and real 2013 novel On Sal Mal Lane is the Sri Lankan civil war that exploded in the early 1980’s. The threat was visible and violent, human madness gone viral. The threat we are facing today in 2020 is invisible and viral, but the emotions, the fear, the sense of impending doom, the desire to see a light at the end of the tunnel, a generation of innocence loss…this could speak to our moment now in the midst of global pandemic or to the people who lived through WWII just as much as Freeman’s novel speaks for those in Sri Lanka almost 40 years ago.

I started reading On Sal Mal Lane right before the world went on lockdown. My wife mentioned it to me many times before over the years, stating she thought I would really enjoy it as Sri Lanka always fascinated me. For whatever reason I kept shrugging it off, until just a few months ago. Like many of my favorite novels, this was the right book at the right time. The character arcs mirrored the arcs of our own lives, the civil war in the novel encroaching on the children’s domestic bliss just as the pandemic began invading ours.

Freeman’s “first-hand” but omniscient narrative insights into the worlds of children, as well as intimate knowledge of social mores and religious, racial, and political differences, make the reader feel as if they are a resident of Sal Mal Lane. Ceremonies, cricket matches, local fauna, the touch of certain fabrics, the taste of certain sweets, the smell of burning things…the details of the children’s lives are wholly immersive. As equally vivid as the details of the outside world are the details of the inner thoughts and emotions of the children. How she depicts certain arcs such as an evolving love and talent for music, or a brief affair with wanting to be a cricket start give shades and color to the children in ways rarely captured in art.

Regardless of the personal context I brought to my reading, it’s fair to say On Sal Mal Lane would’ve moved me to tears on any given day in any given year of my adult life. But the feelings felt now in the moment for the characters Freeman created couldn’t have been deeper. I will never forget the scene when the children’s schools were suddenly closed as riots began in the streets of Colombo and everyone was left to wander home through the chaos, or the excruciating choice one troubled teenage boy makes while caught up in the melee of the marauding mob that seals the fates of all down the lane.

On Sal Mal Lane is a timely and timeless masterpiece. It’s the type of art that provides solace and reminds us that we were, we are, never alone. We can connect with other people and characters from different times and in different places, in good times and bad, and in all the shades and colors of life. I’m so glad I met the residents of Sal Mal Lane when I did.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For another view into the beauty of Sri Lanka through the horrors of its civil war, I highly recommend another masterpiece, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost.

For an equally immersive and poignant look at ordinary people caught up in the storms of war and trying to survive, I highly recommend another masterpiece, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, famously written “in the moment” of the German invasion of France during WWII.

#AndThenWeVanish Whether We Like It Or Not

For a brief moment, as the world-altering realities of life during a pandemic sank into the pit of my stomach as the new normal, I struggled with whether or not I should stick to the original release date for my new short story collection And Then We Vanish. But it quickly became the least of my worries, and so, April 7th 2020 was going to be the release date whether we liked it or not, and now here we are. And we have not vanished.

Eleven tales made up of old and new stories curated from over a decade or work, And Then We Vanish represents literary fiction with a twist. The stories are married to the theme of people vanishing or wanting to vanish. Most of the stories are dark, but apart from many of the characters wanting to escape their lives, and a few meeting their untimely demise, the stories are connected with strains of hope. When faced with bizarre events, trauma, and the absurd, most of these characters find ways to survive and move on.

I hope that we can all do the same in the wake of recent real-world events.

– D. H. Schleicher

Buy the paperback from Amazon for $9.99.

Download a copy to your Kindle for $3.99, or with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

Ask your local indie bookstore to stock their shelves through Indiebound.

Add And Then We Vanish to your Goodreads “Want to Read” pile.

Cover design by Violeta Nedkova

#BlowTheManDown is a Breath of Fresh Neo-Noir Air

In a tiny fishing hamlet on the harsh, rocky shores of Maine, two sisters (Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor) still reeling from their mother’s passing, get inadvertently caught up in the shady dealings of the town’s madam, Enid Devlin (Margo Martindale, in a role that seems like it could’ve been written for one of the fake movies staring her infamous self on Bojack Horseman). Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down has echoes of the Coen Brothers’ best work. But whereas similarly plotted films in similarly hardscrabble environs have typically had the shady dealings of the men at the forefront with women in the background as side characters (or in the case of some Coen classics, stepping forward in one key role), this crafy neo-noir puts all the women in the forefront with the men as side pawns.

Apart from Martindale, who is magnificent, the cast features the fantastic June Squib and Annette O’Toole. Will Brittain acquits himself nicely in the throw-away detective role. All of the acting is solid, and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of belllowing fishermen singing shanty songs on the docks and rocks to transition some key scenes.

Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the film is moodily lit and shot on location by Todd Bhanzi. The score is note perfect from Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber. The look, the sound, and the editing were perfect. There’s not a wasted shot, line, or moment in this economic 90-minute film.

While it’s likely not going to blow you away, there is so much to savor here. I expect great things from Cole and Krudy in the future. In the meantime, we have this enjoyably nasty little ditty to satiate our appetite.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Note: Blow the Man Down is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

What I’m Reading: #Covid-19 #StayAtHome Edition

On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel by [Freeman, Ru]

Don’t expect anything escapist and fun here (well, maybe something slipped in). But do expect to find common themes of tragedy, human fraility, resiliency, and survival.

Current Reads:

  • On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman – I’m about half-way through this wonderful, Dickensian look at normal people trying to navigate social mores, keep up appearances, and lead their day-to-day lives on the cusp of the Sri Lankan civil war. Told mostly from the point of view of the neighborhood children, this is shaping up like an all-time classic.
  • The End of Echoes by Dawn Hosmer – I’m oh-so-close to finishing this emotionally exhausting read (and I mean that in a mostly good way) about emotionally exhausted families going through extreme trauma and change. Some of the tribulations are repetative, but they speak keenly to cycles of abuse and behavior. Not surprisingly, the author is a former social worker.

In My Queue:

Past Reads that Seem Fitting For Our Time:

  • When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley – I read this just last year, and it’s a powerful and engrossing look at refugees living through the blitzkriegs over England during WWII.
  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky – It’s been many years since I read this, but the author’s “in the moment” depiction of Nazi-occupied France is still one of my all-time favorite novels.
  • Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje – Want to know more about the Sri Lankan civil war? Ondaatje’s devastating and haunting masterpiece will fuel your dreams.
  • The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen – a timely read about a small town under quarantine during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

I would be remiss not to plug my own works:

  • Then Came Darkness – a novel about a family struggling through the Great Depression while trying to keep a murderous man hellbent on revenge at bay.
  • And Then We Vanish – my new collection of short stories (lit fiction with a twist) due to be released April 7th, 2020.

What’s in your reading pile this spring of extreme social distancing?

Discover Eleven Ways to Vanish in April 2020 with #AndThenWeVanish

I’m excited to announce the upcoming release, April 7th 2020, of my new short story collection.

Eleven twisting tales curated from nearly a decade of work, And Then We Vanish features five new stories and six previously published stories.

vanish wordpress 1

In these stories we encounter characters who are victims of their own poor decisions and of chance, like a young boy under the threat of a local kidnapping scare who starts to realize the truth about himself and his father one fateful Halloween, a woman in the midst of a midlife crisis whose dog keeps running away from her, a disgraced college professor who becomes entangled with his down-and-out neighbors outside of Atlantic City, and a lonely person who wanders Niagara Falls at night imagining their escape with a mysterious stranger.

These characters might be longing to disappear or left behind by those who already have, and their stories challenge us to connect with them while they navigate the waves of mystery, violence, and the absurd that filter into their everyday lives.

Discover Eleven Ways to Vanish in the Following Tales:

  • The Pumpkin Thief – new
  • The Ballerina in Battery Park – originally published in Scratch Anthology: Volume 3
  • Upon the Unfortunate News of My Death – new
  • Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits – originally published in A Million and One Magazine
  • Anthrax and Cherry Blossoms – originally published in A Million and One Magazine
  • Somebody You Used to Know – new
  • Blue Heather – new
  • Down Gallow’s Way – originally published in Red Moon District by Underground Voices
  • Wild Horses – new
  • When Night Falls on Niagara – originally published in Eunoia Review
  • Night of the Spider – originally published in The Stone Digital Literary Magazine

Preorder for your Kindle for $3.99.

Preorder the paperback version for $9.99.

Add And Then We Vanish to your Goodreads “Want to Read” pile.

Cover design by Violeta Nedkova

What If We All Had Just One Shot in 1917?

When Carl Theodore Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (ten years after the events of the film in question here) he did not invent the close-up, he merely mastered the use of it as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Likewise, Sam Mendes did not invent the idea of filming a movie in one long continuous take, he merely mastered the use of it for 1917 (along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Like Dreyer’s film, 1917 is an absolute artistic masterpiece. It is the height of its craft.

While the technical artistry achieved with the continuous shot did not come as a surprise, what did for me was the emotional undercurrent of the film. At its core, it’s a classic riff on the timeless hero’s journey. Mendes and Deakins chose the one shot technique as a way to mirror the film’s central conflict. These poor soldiers only have one shot to deliver crucial orders. The attention to detail both in the script and what appears (or doesn’t appear) in the shot gives the film a gritty immersive pull. We’re constantly moving forward, our adrenaline racing along with the characters as they try to deliver time sensitive orders across enemy lines to stop a massacre at the shifting front of battle in France during WWI. The performances (especially from the young leads) cannot be dismissed and are currently underrated. The actors give the film and the classical story its heart, and the reverent sentimentality of the script and Mendes’ direction (that never romanticizes war, but instead reminds us of the humanity of those thrown into its chaos) pulls on our heartstrings as much as the suspense gives us a lump in our throat.

1917 borrows liberally the visual elements of horror, thrillers, 1st person video games and classic war films. The nighttime shelling of the ruins of a French village is some of the greatest cinematography ever captured. A hungry rat tripping a wire in an underground bunker. A shell-shocked soldier waking in the darkness. A soldier leaping from a stone wall into a river that sweeps him away into rapids. Cherry blossoms. A battalion waiting in the seemingly peaceful woods listening to one of their own sing a folk song before entering the trenches. Longing to be reunited with your family. Everyone will walk away with their own indelible image, feeling, and favorite scene. What’s even more astounding is that all of it was pulled together to seem like it was one shot. 1917 is mythic movie-making at its very best.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

There is Weird Wild Heartbreaking Beautiful Stuff to be Found in The Deep

The Deep is a wildly imaginative bit of fiction anchored in universal truths and spun creatively from real trauma. It is simultaneously a collaborative work based on the mythology created in experimental rap songs, and a uniquely singular novella. Like its main character, the mysterious Yetu, it is both plural and one. It’s quite unlike anything I have ever read. If I tried to ensnare and then relay its essence, imagine if Toni Morrison wrote a piece of science-fiction. It’s that soulful, and that weird. But to reduce it to that type of blurb would do it a disservice.

A fantastic underwater utopia inhabited by strange sentient creatures (the Wajinru) who are descended from pregnant women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade, communal memories, climate change, the end of the world…it’s all woven into the rich tapestry of Rivers Solomon’s tome which reads like an epic poem. Rich in metaphors and bold imagination, it channels both the grief and the triumph of the marginalized.

Love who you love. Own your past. Create your future.

For all the heartache, the novella builds to an amazing closing line that left this reader reeling.

There is hope in the chaos.

Written by D. H. Schleicher