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.

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?

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

Revisiting Phoenix – The Best Film of the 2010s

Nina Hoss in Phoenix – The Performance and Film of the Decade
Denis Villenueve (directing Amy Adams in Arrival) – The Director of the Decade
Ryan Gosling in Drive – the Performer of the Decade

The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.

Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.

Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).

It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.

But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).

Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).

Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.

FilmYearDirectorDecade Rank
Phoenix2015Christian Petzold1
Phantom Thread2017Paul Thomas Anderson2
If Beale Street Could Talk2018Barry Jenkins3
Inception2010Christopher Nolan4
The Tree of Life2011Terrence Malick5
Mad Max: Fury Road2015George Miller6
Waves2019Trey Edward Shults7
Melancholia2011Lars Von Trier8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives2011Apichatpong Weerasethakul9
Drive2011Nicolas Winding Refn10
The Irishman2019Martin Scorsese11
Arrival2016Denis Villeneuve12
12 Years a Slave2013Steve McQueen13
Winter’s Bone2010Debra Granik14
Interstellar2014Christopher Nolan15
Moonlight2016Barry Jenkins16
La La Land2016Damien Chazelle17
Cold War2018Pawel Pawlikowski18
Lean on Pete2018Andrew Haigh19
The Place Beyond the Pines2013Derek Cianfrance20
Take Shelter2011Jeff Nichols21
Biutiful2010Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu22
Transit2019Christian Petzold23
Us2019Jordan Peele24
Personal Shopper2017Olivier Assayas25
A Separation2011Asghar FarhadiHM
Lincoln2012Steven SpielbergHM
The Grey2012James CarnahanHM
The Impossible2012Juan Antonio BayonaHM
The Master2012Paul Thomas AndersonHM
Gravity2013Alfonso CuaronHM
Inside Llewyn Davis2013The Coen BrothersHM
Mud2013Jeff NicholsHM
Blue Ruin2014Jeremy SaulnierHM
Enemy2014Denis VilleneuveHM
Sicario2015Denis VilleneuveHM
The Salesman2016Asghar FarhadiHM
Dunkirk2017Christopher NolanHM
Blade Runner 20492017Denis VilleneuveHM
Wind River2017Taylor SheridanHM
BlacKkKlansman2018Spike LeeHM
Roma2018Alfonso CuaronHM

Written by D. H. Schleicher

What is it all for in #AHiddenLife

On the surface, A Hidden Life is a return to form for Terrence Malick after his oddly prolific period during which he appeared to have made twenty-seven experimental films starring Christian Bale in Texas.

The structure of the film is built like a visit to a cathedral and attending one very long mass: the tone reverent, the pacing like a pilgrimage, the cinematography of the Austrian mountains breathtaking, and the music heavenly.

It tells the simple tale of one farmer’s moral objection to fighting in WWII and refusal to pledge loyalty to Hitler, and it has all of the philosophical and religious pondering one would expect from Malick.

But I had two major objections of my own to Malick’s latest.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

First, in being everything you would expect from a Malick film, there is no sense of surprise or delight to be found. I could’ve predicted every single framing of beautiful imagery and light. And at nearly three-hours long, the artistic images and music are on what seems like an endless loop with no end in sight. There’s no sense of the that cosmic chaos and fluidity that made The Tree of Life a masterpiece, or any of that earthy yet otherworldly novelty that made The New World astound the senses. The narrative also falls victim to some of the most grueling clichés of both rustic cinema verité (oh look, a pig being slaughtered and an innocent little girl observing the carnage) and “false imprisonment” films where the main character is always transferred to progressively worse institutions.

Secondly, and perhaps more damning, I couldn’t relate to the Christian concept of martyrdom. I understood the farmer’s original and courageous objections to war and Hitler’s worldview. There comes a point in time after he has already suffered (and made his point) where he was given a practical and sensible way out that would’ve spared his life and brought him back to his wife and daughters who so desperately needed him. Yet he staunchly refuses on principle. So he dies, leaving his family to suffer in his absence, and is executed as a traitor…and for what? The idea of dying for your beliefs (or in defiance of the evil beliefs of others) is just as senseless in my mind as the ones on the opposite end of the spectrum who are willing to kill to uphold the evil ideas of people like Hitler. Both extremes are willing to die in rebellion against the natural will to survive. Isn’t this perhaps the same brand of insanity?

Even Malick seems to concede that this is the central conundrum: one can nobly die for any cause…but when it doesn’t change the course of events and only causes your loved ones’ suffering, what was it all for? The farmer’s wife muses that one day (in the end), all that is unknown will be known. We’ll finally understand what it was all for. I’m all for mysteries, but that’s just a blind faith, and it’s that kind of blind faith that leads people down the extreme paths to play both the sinner and the saint, willing to die.

What kind of world would it be if we were all martyrs?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do in #Harriet

There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.

There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.

The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.

Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For follow up, check out the Variety article on what drove Kasi Lemmons to direct Harriet.

#HistoricalFiction from Page to Screen

I’ve been on a big historical fiction kick lately. All three of the novels I’ve read recently in this genre jumped off the page and played like movie reels in my mind. There’s something about the genre (when done well) that naturally lends itself to adaptation for both big and small screens. In this golden era of “limited series” on TV and in streaming services, I couldn’t help but imagine how these novels would play.

Darktown by Thomas Mullen – This crime drama about the first African-American cops in Atlanta in the 1940s and the corruption and racism they had to battle would seem a perfect fit for TNT or FX. I could see it playing out similarly to the recent limited series from Patty Jenkins, I Am the Night. Heck, that series’ own Carl Franklin would be a fantastic choice to direct.

When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley – This tale of refugees from the Czech Republic and Germany fleeing to England during WWII would make a splendid PBS Masterpiece Theater series.

The War in Our Hearts by Eva Seyler – When I first read started reading this melodrama about Scots on the Western Front of France during WWI, it initially made me think about those searingly romantic mini-series of classic 1980’s TV (think The Thornbirds or North and South). But the novel ended on such an achingly poetic note that I couldn’t help but picture it as a cinematic moodpiece by Terence Davies.

What have you read lately that begs for a big or small screen adaptation?

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

Spying on Whales Reveals the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told

I’ve been on a science reading kick lately, following up last year’s reading of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (a fascinating psychological study of octopi and the people who love them) with Nick Pyenson’s enthralling Spying on Whales. Pyenson weaves a fascinating adventure tale, as he globe-hops from archaeological digs in South America to whaling stations in the arctic, in his insatiable quest to track the past, present, and future of the largest animals ever to inhabit the earth.

Clearly blessed with the spirit of an adventurer and a natural-born storyteller, Pyenson is able to revel in the scientific details without losing the lay reader. His personal thoughts on the matters are often poignant, sometimes puzzling. As a new father, I was heartbroken by his personal anecdote of his young son writing him a “I miss you” letter while he was on a mission thousands of miles away. I can’t ever imagine that kind of lengthy separation. But later in the book, he walks with his son on a beach, and his son discovers a fossil that turns out to be of a previously unknown species of whale, and the fossil gets classified under the boy’s name, providing a kind of longer view outlook on the impact of his life’s work on his family. What a memory for a child to have! What type of legacy is Pyenson leaving in his both his professional field and at home? What types of adventurers will his children become?

The center piece of the book is the vivid depiction of a sprawling archaeological dig in the Atacama Desert of Chile poetically called Cerro Ballena, where excavation of a new highway has uncovered layers upon layers of complete whale skeletons – a historic find that not even Indiana Jones could’ve imagined. In a race against time and human expansion, our fearless scientists must salvage as many fossils as they can. These chapters unfold in thrilling fashion while perfectly blending in colorful side-characters, political intrigue, science, and adventure. Continue reading