Cries and Whispers

1972 film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullmann.

This masterpiece has a strength and depth that I do not often see in films. Full of powerful female roles – the sisters, daughter, above all the maid – it is above all a series of single and slow shots, often with great attention to shadows and fog, foreground and background, which are the most arresting.

The three sisters gather in the family mansion because one is at the end of her life. Depicting her terrible suffering and their various responses to it, Cries and Whispers is concerned with all the important things in life: dying and death (of course, sadness and grieving and what happens afterwards), love, religion, sex, lack of human communication and connection. And betrayal, raising the questions whether we all do these sorts of things to each other, especially in our important relationships, and when we do, is it through a lack of awareness, a lack of kindness, self-interest…?

The style is all about the implied – snatches of conversations hinting at abuse in the past; subtle facial expressions; a view through the window into the garden at the right moment – nothing is thrust at me or over-explained, rather I am allowed to sit back in my cinema chair and draw my own conclusions, using my own intelligence and powers of observation, respected.

It is a measured Galliard (i) of a film, one meaningful step at a time, allowing me to see the detail and depth of a face or scene and almost always leaving certainty aside. After she dies and then calls her sisters, is she meant to be a ghost? When one refuses to attend the sick room, is this because she cannot bear the suffering, or is there a relationship issue we are not aware of? The pace allows some space to reflect while watching. I could not have slept for a second, although one man managed to snore throughout!

The cast is made up of women suffering and damaged in themselves, the most powerful being the maid – voluptous, clever, loving, agreeable, she has many of the attributes we expect from ‘the staff’ in these historical movies, but is a much rounder character than that. The exquisite tenderness in the removal of her top and cradling of the dying woman is something I will not forget quickly.

Meanwhile, the men take a back-seat, although they are implicated by what they do not say, what amuses them. At the edges of the main drama, their words or actions highlight the dysfunctional family situation – for example, as in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it is the man who generously suggests a payment is made (here, to the maid after the death of her mistress) and his wife who refuses.

I am reminded of a more recent American film as I watch. To The Wonder (ii. 2013, directed by Terence Malick) must surely be paying homage to Cries and Whispers with its plaintive domestic scenes, lack of extant dialogue and slow self-conscious choreography on wide open plains.

What has stayed with me? The most explicit scene in which she accidentally knocks over a delicately decorated glass at the supper table. There is a suggestion that she expects her husband opposite to chastise her, but there is silence. She toys with a shard of glass and later takes it with her when she goes into her room where she desperately stabs it between her legs. Somehow she manages to walk into their shared room, lie back on the pillows and smear the blood over her face. Does her husband enjoy the result of her wound? Is the blood part of their love-making? She smiles and he moves to join her with no sign of horror on his face. The next morning she is moving around, apparently with no pain. Chilling.

Afterwards, I feel sad even morose, quiet and contemplative.

I watched this, on the spur of the moment, at one Vintage Sunday showing at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, May 2018.

i. A Galliard is an Elizabethan dance style.

ii. To The Wonder

 

Never Steady, Never Still

2017 Film directed by Kathleen Hepburn. 5 stars.

A stunning film in both definitions of the word, Kathleen Hepburn’s best known film is also painfully realistic. Very gradually, we come to understand how desperately challenging Judy’s life is. Shirley Henderson brilliantly inhabits the body of someone with Parkinson’s – the gait, the gestures, the voice – and evinces incredible pathos as a result. Her 18 year old son, Jamie (played by Théodore Pellerin) is the other key character in this Canadian feature, and he, too, is deeply immersed in his role so that we squirm when he is embarrassed and cry when he cries. It is no wonder Hepburn has won a whole raft of accolades for this.

Gently, the extent this illness has on Judy’s life unfolds. Set against the exquisite, quiet backdrop of the water and hills, icy forests and snowy roads of Alberta, the physical pain and mental challenge is terrible. The setting or rising sun, rose-glowing at the horizon, may be indicative of the atmosphere in the home, but it is never overly obvious. This is because we are slowing down with the pace of the film and increasingly mindful, unable to avoid empathising with what is taking place.

As if Judy and Jamie do not have enough to contend with, they must also deal with death and consequent grieving (there are marvellous views of the simple funeral chapel); bullying around heavy machinery; drug taking; an unpleasant sex scene with a prostitute in a tiny portacabin toilet; teenage pregnancy and the inevitable questions about sexual orientation – although I thoroughly enjoyed the candid, awkward conversations between Jamie and 17 year old Kaly (Mary Galloway) in the final section.

The opening scene of the mother in her white nightie standing thigh-high in the sea outside her lodge, and the accompanying narrative of her miscarriage and stillbirth, manages to be both light in tone and heavy in implication. Again and again, we see the cast from behind, although we might be shown, over a shoulder, a second character facing us. Often intense close up is used, so close that it can be almost out of focus, such as the upsetting, but fantastically realised, getting-dressed sequence at the end; or the camera is at ground level, for example, when Jamie and his best buddy play ice hockey: the sound and sight of the blades cutting, chillingly, through the ice.

With so many beautiful and artful images to stay with you after it ends, there is nevertheless a sense of discomfort and danger. Despite the occasional easy humour, you cannot avoid understanding something about life with this debilitating disease.

Wonderstruck

2017 Film, directed by Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ new film, ‘Wonderstruck’ is set simultaneously in 1927 and 1977. There are two stories about two children, Rose and Ben, searching for family, running away from home and, in the case of Rose, kneeling touchingly at the water’s edge and sending her note of despair away on an origami boat (for more paper folding, see later). Of course their stories coincide at the end – albeit with charming storytelling and impressive acting from Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley .

Shot in black and white for the 20s, and technicolour for the 70s, the combination of these styles with appropriate costume and largely relevant music, make for no confusion about which part of the narrative we are following, and establish a clear ambience. In addition, as it shifts back and forth from era to era, we learn about the kids’ home life, hobbies and relationships, and begin to guess what the connections between them might be.

The poignant scenes of the misunderstood and vulnerable young ones roaming busy streets, of old cinema and theatre, antique book store, and museums galore (which unfortunately are reminiscent of Night at the Museum with some identical shots), are all arresting but somehow predictable; beautiful and yet obvious.

Both characters are deaf and much is made of this – Rose in her silence, with a stern father shouting, is secretly longing for her film-star mama (most authentic silent film until you recognise Julianne Moore!). Her narrative mimics little Ben’s, newly bereaved after his own mother dies in a car accident, and who is then struck by lightening no less.

The score is variously pop and classical, interspersed with quiet. There is an astronomical theme hence several renditions of 2001, A Space Odyssey (Also Sprach Zarathusra), and quite a bit of David Bowie with the final credits running out on ‘Can you hear?’

Repeated use of newspaper cuttings; scribbled messages on feint-lined pads; sign language; lip-reading for the audience; gesture and mime – with even a very brief appearance by a Marcel Marceau street performer – are enlisted to get the message across. The final denouement is enticingly told with animation and collage alongside a magnificent paper landscape of New York.

There is very little left to the imagination, countless clues are easily spotted by the keen-eyed (how many left-handed women can you see?), but Wonderstruck has lush sets and is richly dressed.

Zaragoza blog including paper museum, EMOZ (see below)

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Exhibit of paper folding, EMOZ, Spain. Apologies: artist’s name unknown.
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Victorian pop-up book, part of the historical collection EMOZ, Spain.

Museum of Paper, Zaragoza, Spain

Book Review: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans.

Ecstasy is vital to life! Philosopher advocates losing control with humility. 

4 star

In The Art of Losing Control, A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience,  Jules Evans is concerned with ecstasy – ”Can we learn to lose control safely,’’ he asks, ”or is it always dangerous?‘’ In 10 chapters and 250 pages of compact type, he makes a clear case for this basic human need and concludes that without it, we, as a species, are in danger.

This is Evans’ second book after Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations about Ancient Greek philosophy; and as a modern day philosopher and stoic with a high profile (he runs The London Philosophy Club, and is a Research Fellow at the University of London), he has some considerable authority in the field, which is not immediately apparent as I plough my way through the first half. This is partly because he can be dismissive of views he cannot understand: ”all sorts of nonsense, from horoscopes to…”, and partly because it is a mixture of formal and informal writing where one minute there is a first hand account of an orgy, and the next, the author is getting to grips with deep intellectual debate.

It is not that this is a tricky academic tome or too choc-full of dense language, but that there really are very many references, and its scope is grandiose, covering as it does, all of civilisation. In fact, as I move from a chapter on psychedelic drugs to a chapter on rock music through the ages; from The Contemplation Zone to The Tantric Love Temple at an imaginary festival (which is his device and thence his structure), I become increasingly persuaded that Evans is an authority and by the Mosh Pit – chapter 8 about war being an ecstatic experience – convinced also that this is a vital book and ecstasy is something we should indeed all be concerned with. He gets closer than most in identifying why we have not yet attained the nirvana we are searching for, and makes a good stab at how we might go about getting it.

It is a work of far-reaching research, both literary and personal: He attends a Vipassana meditation; an Alpha Christian course where the ensuing community support means a lot to him; as well as often referring to his teenage NDE (‘near death experience’. He has the ability to sum up huge bodies of work (eg. CBT) and human movements (eg. Romanticism) in pithy understandable phrases, and though he does increasingly state his own view: ”We need to worship less, consume less, and play more.’ ‘ p. 90, and repeats that finding peace is hard work and can only be learned gradually, the book trips along and is very entertaining.

The Art Of Losing Control is published by Canongate.

Jules Evans own website with very popular blog.

Richard Holloway – Waiting for the Last Bus, reflections on life and death

Book Review *****

How do I sum up Richard Holloway’s Waiting for the Last Bus, Reflections on Life and Death in a few 100 words when it tackles the broadest subjects imaginable? This octogenarian is so insightful and informed, his text so littered with erudite quotes, and his advice so spot-on, that I am tempted to simply say, you must read it!

Part personal musing on living, and part teachings on ageing and the reality of decease, Waiting for.. is brutally honest and pragmatic: “A death well faced can be redemptive of a life that may not have been well lived.” “We want to make it (life) more just and abundant and joyful for everyone.” states the author, thus he forces the reader to be as thorough as he has been in his thinking. His writing tone is crystal clear: “there is no escape from anguish…. Accepting the reality of… our death …might save us from the greater unhappiness of trying to ignore or hide from these realities…It takes fortitude,…the ability to endure the reality of our condition without flinching.”

Holloway is an ex-Bishop of Edinburgh and former Episcopalian, past Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, and writer of divers volumes including the 2012 Leaving Alexandria, his biographical enquiry into faith and doubt. This background goes some way to explain his expansive knowledge: the bible, the liturgy in its complexity, poetry, music and art, all of which he plunders and delves into for apposite sayings to back-up his theories and assist in his expositions. “..let Me live to my sad self hereafter kind, Charitable” from GM Hopkins’ Poems.

Whether sermonising on the meaning of the universe, on jealousy versus envy, loss, sexuality or forgiveness and compassion (“Wherever it comes from, one of the paradoxes of compassion – forgiveness is that it can release the sorrow of offenders at their own action.”) even John Wayne! most aspects of death are given an equally rigorous treatment. Medical intervention and the tendency towards avoidance of our mortality is tackled in detail, but the quantum approach is not. More recent understandings of time and the consciousness of matter are not alluded to and might offer a different perspective to the “naked silence and profound stillness” (Leopardi) which he believes will come inevitably after the universe ceases. Perhaps he would tell me that that was my compulsion to find an alternative to this nihilation.

Published by Canongate

Canongate page on this book

Audacious Women Festival – Celebrating Audacity, Spoken Word and Music

The by-line of the Audacious Women Festival, now in its 3rd year, is ‘Do what you always wished you dared.’ Sally Wainwright, one of the organisers, introduces this theme by telling us about a singing workshop for those who believe they cannot sing but who managed a 4-part harmony after 2 hours; and a beginners song-writing workshop whose participants were so keen they continued to read out their work in the street afterwards.

The performers and event alike operate in an identifiably female way with pre-planned efficiency, open friendliness, and an intensely supportive atmosphere where intimate confessions are interspersed with poetry, discussion and music. The Festival website states that it is “a chance to break personal, political, institutional barriers”, and the frank language and direct approach of most of the women is refreshing and challenging on all those levels.

The compere, Agnes Török, herself an experienced spoken word artist with a new book out entitled We Need To Talk, solidarity and survivorship starts by encouraging us to whoop and applaud, for all the world like a TV show about to go on air, in order to encourage and appreciate those who will declare. A Swede by birth, Agnes’ English is perfect and she speaks and declaims assertively on behalf of those who are being or have been abused, focusing on the Me Too campaign, and reiterating she is only with us herself because of Women’s Aid.

In terms of material, Emily Still’s Don’t Stand So Close about a female robot wired to be hyper-clever and made by men who want to have their way with her in the lab of an evening, conveys a creepy, inadvertently-cross-my-legs-on-hearing-it reaction. Her wry Fat Poet is also original, in which we can picture her without judgment and see how she is discriminated against by others. Lore, an amusing prose piece about her one-legged great granny falling into the toilet is partly verbalised in her local Leith dialect.

The second half contains a panel conversation lead by Török with Edinburgh Women’s Aid CEO Linda Rodgers and Edinburgh Rape Crisis Sexual Violence Prevention Worker Nadine (celebrating, respectively, their 45th and 40th anniversaries). All 3 women are eloquent, informative, highly informed and sparky. The questions are excellent: looking at the shape of a world without violence against women, recent breakthroughs in legislation, and what each one of us can do to help the cause – listen and always believe women who tell you they have been abused.

Audacious Women Festival website

Mon 26 Feb 2018

Iranian Film Festival – Poets of Life

The heroine of this delightful film, part of the Women Constructing Men series (with English subtitles alongside the native Farsi and a little French) is undoubtedly Shirin Parsi, a farmer and environmental activist extradordinaire. This documentary depicts Parsi at home and in the fields, narrating her life and reading poetry, hence the title.

Shirin Barghnavard, the female director, allows Parsi to take us through rice production, paddie management, intricate family relationships, and her struggle to obtain a permit to mill the rice. I find myself laughing alongside her, and many of my fellow audience members join me to chuckle at the irony of government officials’ decisions, or lack of them, and their staff trying to avoid making appointments with this indefatigable woman.

With beautiful shots of the green plants and yellow farm landscape in Western Gilan, stately trees swaying in the wind, and the vibrant red and orange scarves Parsi wears, we delight in this colourful account of Iranian rural living. We see her cooking and eating with her family, feeding the animals, visiting the nearest town and confidently issuing orders to the male workers, mainly her sons. The scenes of her planting and conversing with other women, all bare feet in the mud, slurping water melon and complaining about the younger generation, are heart-warming and life-affirming.

Highly articulate and not easy to ignore, Parsi collects women together and subtly educates them about the impact some of their farming methods have on the long-term environment. She speaks out as part of the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs and provides persuasive arguments for going organic and using the 260 local varieties rather than the suggested genetically modified type.

What a contrast Parsi is, spirited, comfortable in her own skin and focused on the vital things of life, to the airbrushed model pretending to outrun a wolf in the fabric conditioner advert shown beforehand!

Edinburgh Iranian Festival website

Mon 26 Feb 2018