Crisis (short story)

Link to my short story Crisis, now on Diverse Voices Quarterly http://www.diversevoicesquarterly.com/2016/08/issue-29-available/

Click on ‘Current Issue’ to read.

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Modern Love with Variation

My latest published story Modern Love with Variation can now be read at www.anaksastra.com Go to the site and click on ‘current issue’.

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Ennui in a Nation with its Back to the Wall – two films by Paolo Sorrentino

As different on a narrative and other levels as they are, two of Paolo Sorrentino’s most well-known films, his Academy Award winning (for Best Foreign Language Picture) The Great Beauty (2013) and Il Divo (2008) comprise a complementary vision. Early in the first film 65-year-old Jeb Gambardella is seen living it up in style at a party held to commemorate his birthday. He is no stranger to this life, having embraced it since his arrival in Rome as a young man. He made up his mind then, we are told, to out bon vivant the best of Rome high society, to make or break parties according to his whim.

Were there a measure of world weariness in such a free wheeling, self-indulgent man it would hardly be surprising given the years that have passed. Thoughts and remembrances of what he has forsaken in life – most notably his writing ambitions and a lost love – compound Jeb’s ennui. The early promise he showed as a novelist has never been realised. He bankrolls his lavish lifestyle with cultural critiques for a magazine run by his friend and foil the dwarf Dadina.

But he is a man capable of genuine feeling. His sorrow is heartfelt when he learns of the death of the one who ought by rights to have been the love of his life. Further salt is rubbed in the wound on hearing, from her distraught widowed husband, that the deceased never stopped considering him her true love though she went on to wed another.

Death is pervasive throughout The Great Beauty. The film commences with the sudden death of a camera toting Japanese tourist. The maudlin son of one of Jeb’s closest friends meets an inevitable early end. The ageing stripper Ramona, a woman with whom he has a short-term affair, also dies in the course of the story. As to why Jeb watched his potential fade to nothing … he was, he says, searching for a beauty he never found. Ironically enough beauty surrounds him in the Eternal City though living there entails putting up with an existence in ‘provincial, shitty Italy.’ This is a pressing contradiction that blinds him to what might otherwise be seen.

Huge disappointment, with Rome, with Italy, informs many of the characters in the film. Jeb’s loyal friend Romano returns to his home town fed up. Another of his circle, the oft-published but opportunist Stefania, tries to put on a brave face. But she has little success. Jeb and others see through her and relish reminding her of latent inconsistencies in her life and compromised art.

The capital city and country depicted here is not far removed in time from the earlier incarnation focussed upon in the director’s Il Divo (The Divine). The film is based on the life of the enigmatic 7-time prime minister of Italy Guilio Andreotti, a political leader notorious for alleged ties to the Mafia. The narrative deals with his seventh election to the post, his failed bid for the presidency through to the Tangentopoli bribe scandal and his 1995 trial. Andreotti is implicated in the murders of journalists, bankers, police and his one-time colleague Aldo Moro, the former prime minister kidnapped by the Red Brigade in 1978 and executed after 55 days in captivity. It is a bloody legacy but Andreotti’s conviction is ultimately overturned.

The cynical derision toward Italy on display in The Great Beauty is not overtly politically motivated. But it is hard to divorce it from the tumultuous events that have scorched the land in the decades since the ignominious World War Two defeat. Jeb’s ‘who could bother to care less about anything’ attitude is more easily understood when one considers the broader context. Just as out of Guilio Andreotti arose the corrupt Silvio Berlusconi, the failed writer and his cohorts are the logical offspring of a nation where impunity has been allowed to run riot at the highest levels of government.

At least until he begins to show signs of a sort of coming to terms, Jeb’s hands are as tied as Andreotti’s, whose principal justification for his alleged condoning of murder and other misdeeds resides in the vagaries incumbent on high office. In their relentless quests for truth and nothing but, Moro and kindred were ingenuous, asserts the 7-time prime minister. A lasting, greater good, stability in a fractious nation, cannot be achieved without bloodshed.

Paolo Sorrentino is blessed with an astute cinematic eye and raises important issues in both films. They can be viewed as completely separate works and enjoyed in their own right. But taken together each helps to illuminate and add depth to the other. It is hard to imagine The Great Beauty without the equally accomplished, eye opening Il Divo.

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A ‘print shop’ in Da Nang

In quest of an outlet to print a couple of documents stored for safe keeping on a 16 GB flash drive, I was advised to make my way to a certain street in the neighbourhood.

“You will find a print shop there,” my friend Kimmy told me.

Off I went looking for the place. I proceeded up the road she indicated and made a left on to Nguyen Cong Tru Street. I had walked the length of this street since coming to town approximately three weeks earlier but had no recollection of having passed a print shop along this stretch. It’s just a few doors down, my friend said.

I looked carefully as I walked east. I passed the doors of residences and businesses but failed to locate the print shop Kimmy had assured me was there. I turned around when I could go no further east and retraced my steps. This time I was in luck. High on one of the walls, I saw the lettering Printing Business. This had to be place.

I made my through the open front doors and into a space more like the entrance of a private residence than a business as such. Undaunted, I fished my flash drive from the zipped pocket of the bag I was carrying and showed it to the man approaching me.

“Hello,” I said. “I’d like to copy a couple of things from this, if I can.”

Conversant in English, the middle-aged man indicated that his was not a ‘printing business’ like the one I was seeking. Rather, he was involved in offset printing. My need was not urgent by any means and I would have troubled him no more except he graciously ushered me inside.

“Sit down, please,” he said.

I slipped off my shoes and followed him, taking the seat he pointed out while he moved into one nearby. He was prepared to help me with my need after all, in a few moments. In the meantime he asked the young boy with him to pour and bring me a glass of water. The June heat being oppressive, I drank while I answered his questions about my stay in Vietnam. It was my fifth visit to the country, I said, but my first time in Da Nang.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia.”

My genial host had some knowledge of my country. He spoke of the giant Australian enterprise BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian multinational mining, metals and petroleum company headquartered in the city of Melbourne. They had operated in Vietnam in the past, when he had worked in another business undertaking.

“They started in Broken Hill, a country town in New South Wales,” I told him. “In what we call the outback.”

The person we were waiting on, a young woman, appeared and led us over to a table upon which sat a laptop computer. She took my flash drive and inserted it in one of the USB ports. The list of documents, photographs and other items stored on the drive showed on the street. I pointed out the two I wanted copied and watched as the attached printer did its work.

“How much do I owe you for that?” I asked, turning to leave.

“Nothing.”

I thanked the three for their kindness and went on my way, thinking that I had rarely had such a pleasant trip to a print shop. Da Nang would continue standing out for the friendliness of many of the locals met during my six-week stay. Language could be a barrier but was rarely a great impediment when good will existed all round.

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Ebooks links to Inevitable

My just released novel Inevitable is now available in ebook format at the following. Enjoy!
·         Apple iBooks – https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1128396722
·         24symbols 
·         Scribd – https://www.scribd.com/book/316849694/Inevitable
·         Tolino 
 
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Inevitable (Excerpt)

The following is the prologue and first chapter of my upcoming novel Inevitable, published by Black Rose Writing and to be released on June 23rd.

Prologue

She was the apple of her mother’s eye. The epitome of the blonde, blue-eyed, squeaky clean all-American high school girl. Never in a million years would she have been so base or degenerate as to drink to excess or combine heavy drinking with hard drugs. She could be trusted wholeheartedly, even when not under the watchful gaze of her mother or in the company of other elders who frowned on such vulgar behaviour among the young.

Marianne Canny, backed to the hilt by the girl’s stepfather Vaughan and more so her grandfather Andy, grasped every opportunity that came her way to play the same card as the days passed and no definitive solution broke the mystery open. The means were considerable and originated as much from the print media as they did the old stalwart radio and the cocksure, noisy brat television.

Newspapers, magazines and book publishers did all in their power to milk the ‘guaranteed to be a winner’ missing pretty white woman syndrome. But television, with its immediate auditory-visual dissemination, trumped the competition. For their particular ends the TV networks were gifted with industrious Marianne, a woman who slaved many hours a day for a public relations firm in her home state of Mississippi.

She was as shrewd as the most battle-scarred politician at handling reporters and tricky questions and fanned the flames with her imaginings of dastardly deeds done to ‘my darling Gloria’ or ‘my beautiful baby’. She might have been awaiting this chance all her life. Additional mileage lay in the fact that the case provided a spin on the syndrome inasmuch as Gloria was a mere eighteen, an ingénue, a new graduate with her whole life ahead of her, as the cliché went. More than one lip biting television anchor alerted viewers of this in the immediate aftermath.

The cast supporting Marianne in her quest, an assortment of friends and family, endorsed the line. Gloria was an angel and had always been an angel. Anyone who suggested otherwise was no friend of theirs. They were as bad as the skunks on New Mendoza who had, without any doubt, done grievous harm to the girl.

Even for an extremely gullible audience, poisoned daily with misinformation or half-truths about news events, this must have been hard to stomach. Gloria began resembling a figure out of myth, far from the high school girl who, like her classmates, eagerly packed her bags in anticipation of a sojourn in the relatively distant Caribbean. But, unlike them, she met trouble before the five days ended.

The youngsters who travelled with her hardly ever featured in the news reports. When they did they verbalised not a word about the trip. As if a harness had been affixed, they utilised platitudes or hatched inconsequential anecdotes about the kind of classmate and friend Gloria had been in the months and years before the tragedy.

Watching the broadcasts from far away, a young man from the island, Vanburn Holding, was given to thinking. Rather than a fairy tale upbringing fit for a princess, might the missing girl have undergone something as tempestuous as his own formative years had been? The more he heard Marianne’s sound bites, in interviews short and long, the more he wondered about possible similarities between this girl with the silver spoon and himself, her seeming opposite.

One / Van and Hank

When a child has advanced to an age of any consequence, to have a virtual stranger suddenly dumped on him as the new dominant male in his life can be a hard ask. I was six-years-old, but I would go on to recall the manner of Hank Van Neal’s permanent entry into our lives like it happened the other day.

Dad had died and been buried in the island cemetery, located on a patch of high ground that on clear days offered a view of the South American coast in the near distance. Van Neal was among the mourners on the bright, hot day of the funeral. My father gave him work in the car rental business he owned and managed. Van Neal came to dinner frequently during the time. A childless man whose Dutch wife died within twenty-four months of their marrying, the invitations provided a panacea for his solitude.

I never suspected he would inveigle his way into our lives in the way he did and within such a short period. Only six weeks had passed since clods of earth were strewn upon the polished lid of my father’s coffin.

“Vanburn, this is your new dad-ee.”

Fresh home from school, I closed the front door behind me. Still befuddled by the untimely departure of one who in future I would remember only by dint of old photos and an ever-diminishing memory of me balanced upon his shoulders as we bicycled our way along a gravel laden stretch of road, the last thing in the world I wanted or needed then was a replacement.

Josie, my mother, stressed the word’s dual syllables until it exited her mouth sounding more like two words than one. Her background – she was born in the Deep South of the United States and lived there as a little girl until her mother and father, who was from the island, moved to New Mendoza to live – shone no more clearly than at such moments. When I saw Van Neal’s familiar face alarm bells went off.

I resented the affected way she stood dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief. Had she so readily, so soon, forgotten her late husband? I abhorred him on several counts – the fact that he’d brought her to such a state, his forwardness in having wrapped an arm tight about her then narrow waist, like she was his woman and had always been his woman, the creased jowls, the high forehead, the fair hair that crowned it combed straight up, and his phlegmy Dutch accent.

Self-assured to the point of arrogance. That was him, if I read the expression on his chops right. He resembled a man who had finally, after an excruciatingly prolonged period of waiting, gained the prize sought-after. Had those visits to the house for dinner been a pernicious setting of the scene?

“Hank’s going to be moving in and him and me will soon be marrying.” I looked from him to her and back again. “So you won’t have to be without a dad-ee.”

Again the stress on the two syllables. I loathed her accent that afternoon. I wished she’d left it behind in America. But her presumption was worse. At her bidding, I took Van Neal’s offered hand. As I did, he bent at the waist and brought his pug-like face close. His bright blue eyes drew level with mine.

Boldly, given his superiority in age and strength, I held his gaze. It was war on, but there was not even a remote chance of my surrendering the first round to this usurper. We stared at each other for up to a minute, each aware of the other’s rank animosity. I knew he locked mine away for safe keeping when his eyes momentarily hardened. On the count of one his more benign look was back, but the message had gotten through: I’ll whip you into shape, God be my witness. You’d better believe it, sonny.

“Don’t worry, Hank. He’ll come round.”

Van Neal glanced at his wife-to-be, taking in her positive spin on the no love lost situation. She didn’t know me well if she sincerely believed I would modify my attitude toward him. I didn’t so quickly forget. He unwound to his full height and brought the hand that had grasped mine unnecessarily hard to the top of my head. I became aware of uncomfortable pressure there, intensity that reiterated what the hand grip and fugitive flash in the eyes had conveyed loud and clear.

Josie often reprised the same line – Hank, you’re not to worry, he’ll come round – in the months ahead. In tense times, I would also overhear her say, Give him time, Hank. He misses his dad. I saw it as belated recognition that I’d had a genuine father. But bringing up the fact worked negatively on Van Neal. He interpreted it as a slur on his capacity, an implication that he didn’t fit in how they hoped. By nature he was quarrelsome, but at least two or three times in my hearing her his dad citations angered him.

Years later, when I had unrestricted time to think everything through, I drew the conclusion that but for my refusal to accept him the two of them might have stood a realistic chance of being happy together. Bridging the distance wouldn’t have cost me anything. I could’ve done that without necessarily embracing him as a father figure.

But potential in that area went right down the drain the day he nearly wrenched my right arm out of its socket. A journeyman from way back, or so he bragged to anyone who would listen, he liked being on the water. For several years before he moved to the island full-time, he appeared annually for three- to six-month stretches, the period coinciding with the bleakest winter and spring cold in the Netherlands. Sometimes spring over there could be as stark and drear as winter, he used to say.

When he wasn’t manning an office counter and attending to clients for my father or supplementing his income with odd jobs, he was to be found on the water, in a homemade skiff, a small sail boat or a single-engine speedboat. The speedboat featured a blue awning at the top, a handy add-on in a climate as hot and sunny as ours.

Rare were the days when the sun failed to shine in our little plot of paradise. We were the recipients of more than three hundred and twenty days of sunshine annually. The prevailing breeze blew out of the east. Its southerly bent tended more toward the north in the wet or hurricane season. That was one reason why the terms wet season and hurricane season were misnomers to us. An average annual rainfall rate of less than fifty inches put us in the dry, or arid, tropics range. Year in year out, some Antilles islands received drenchings to the tune of twenty, thirty or forty inches in a single storm let alone the whole season. Hurricanes never threatened us. Our position in the Caribbean ensured immunity from monster systems.

No matter how often I point blank refused to join Van Neal and her on a boat outing, Josie always asked if I wished to go along. She liked me to come along. This was in the period when she preserved hope that peace, of a sort, might be brokered. I did step into a boat with them a handful of times, but not once when it would’ve been just him and me.

When he paid the equivalent of 2000 American dollars for the speedboat, he berthed it at the marina, Nestor Bay Wharf. Early one Saturday morning, partway through a two-week spell of unbounded sunshine, Van Neal rose early and headed to the wharf. He got underway without incident but hit a mechanical problem a mile or so to the south, off Hawkings Beach. We’d lived inland of there a long time and so the area had a ring of familiarity. Josie and I spotted him when we arrived at the shore. He was marooned and fuming, a hundred yards up from the southern end of the beach.

He sighted us but made no acknowledgement. He went on spewing invective into his cell phone. I guess the target was the poor unfortunate who made a hash of repairing his precious possession. It was akin to a piece of junk anyway. The awning on top, functional though it may have been, made it look more ridiculous. I had no sympathy for him, yelling and screaming, treading back and forth like an imbecile at the water’s edge.

“Can I go back?” I asked my mother.

I knew she wouldn’t agree but I thought it worth a shot. I watched her watching him. We were about twenty yards away from him, awaiting his next move in the shade of some tall pines at the rear of the beach. She answered without giving up her scrutiny of him.

“No, you wait here with me.”

“I’ll take the bus,” I said, making another effort. “I’ll wait for you at Ronnie’s.”

Ronnie, a girl a few years younger than me, was the second daughter of our next door neighbour. Though this was happening less than in the past, it was to their house that I was sometimes sent to be ‘minded’ when Josie and Van Neal went out and I didn’t go along. I thought it a sensible out except for the prospective difficulty posed by the distance between the beach and home, six and a half miles.

Josie went on staring at this man roped in as a husband in a misguided bid to provide me a surrogate father. Her unease wasn’t just a figment of my imagination. And I believed the reason she did not okay my beating a retreat to Ronnie’s had nothing to do with the distance I would have to travel. I had, after all, reached the age where I could be trusted with things such as riding public transport alone. She never let me go, I thought, because I was, in a manner of speaking, her protection in a tense predicament. I would stand up for her if the worst came to the worst. She would stand up for me.

We left the pine canopy after he completed his call and waved us forward. It was incredible to see a simple gesture imbued with such anger and hostility. The hapless boat kept bobbing up and down in the shallows behind him. Neither Josie nor I were sure what he wanted us to do, whether to board in the hope he might be able to rectify the problem in a moment or what.

When I moved too close to the boat for comfort, both mine and his, he grabbed my right arm, pulled and slung me away. I felt the pain of a damaged ligament or muscle instantly. By some miracle nothing tore. Had I been seriously hurt Josie would have scratched his eyes out. Deferential as she was with him ninety percent of the time, he could cross an invisible line in his treatment of me.

He bided on the right side of that this time because everything was over and done with in a flash. My loud squeal was an automatic reaction, much like how anyone would respond to an assault of that kind unless they’re made of steel. Even the song and dance I performed on the beach, gripping my sore arm, lasted just seconds. I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing he had discomfited me badly. I quietened down, let go my arm and brushing past Josie thundered back to the shade. There I dallied a moment before turning on my heels in open resistance, determined to have no further part in this latest instalment of our twisted family drama.

My right arm served no useful purpose for days. I hid the fact from both of them, difficult as that was because it lolled by my side, an unhelpful appendage, for everyone to see. Attempts to do the standard daily tasks with it failed because I lacked the required freedom of movement. One evening at dinner, with Josie and Van Neal mid-conversation, I reached out with the afflicted arm, aiming to pick up a salt shaker. But I couldn’t extend it the required few inches until I brought my left hand over, grasped my right wrist and manoeuvred it the rest of the way. Josie reacted to the late corrective movement with a pitying look. Van Neal smirked. King of the castle. Well, I would show him one day and how I longed for time to speed by till the day was upon us.

He’ll come round. The boy’ll come round. I overheard Josie make such divinations less and less over time, as if she no longer believed the mantra herself. What I heard more often were his assertions to her. That boy’s not right or, less commonly, something’s not right with that boy. I never heard him theorise as to what precisely he believed to be not right with me. But he blazoned the claims in a particular tone, one that would have swayed even those partial to granting me some elbow room. If my mother, if anyone else, opened their eyes the obvious would be illuminated for them too: that an undiagnosed mental impairment was at play.

My arm righted itself eventually. No thanks to him. The natural elasticity of a twelve-year-old saved me from nothing more harrowing than several days obscure soreness. Much of the time I could forget it. I was hardly aware of any wound. The mental residua was another affair.

***

Were your dealings with your stepfather, Gloria, in any way similar? Was your experience with this man Vaughan like mine with Van Neal? Standing at your mother’s shoulder in interview after interview, he is the ‘yes man’, there to assure the world he is with Marianne by hook or by crook. But he’s unsuited to the role, uncomfortable. And what a gaffe he made when he acknowledged that you and he weren’t close.

Your mother bowed her head hearing that admission from her second husband. That wasn’t in the script. Nor his quip that you never took drugs. Before someone from the media scrum was astute enough to see the inconsistency and ask your stepdad how he could be sure of something like that if you and he weren’t close, Marianne called time. Enough harm had been done.

But no one in the family panicked. Your mother was a master of damage control. The hale and hearty if bumbling Vaughan began appearing live to air, or unscripted, much less after the first twenty-four hours. The lead male role would lodge in the safe hands of your no nonsense granddad Andy. Anything aired about your character henceforth aligned with the image of the blonde, blue-eyed maiden in the senior portrait.

You look so pretty in your senior photo. Lustrous, long blonde hair parted in the middle falls behind your shoulder on the left, over your shoulder and down to your nascent breast on the right. Your off-the-shoulder black dress becomes you, as do the white beads around your neck. Your skin is lightly tan. Most fetching are your eyes and smile, fixed directly on the camera. This is how everyone knows you now, Gloria. In the full blossom of youth. Not a hair out of place. But it’s not how I remember you.

Who were you really?

 http://www.blackrosewriting.com/mysterydetective/inevitable. Purchased prior to the publication date of June 23, 2016, the promo code:PREORDER2016 may be used to receive a 10% discount.

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To the Wonder in a Life Tree on Heavenly Days – Three Films by Terrence Malick

Heavenly moments, if not entire days, are present in many of the films of the American writer and director Terrence Malick. Even the carnage wrought by the rampaging young lovers in his 1973 debut feature Badlands (1973) is interrupted now and again by carefree intervals. Can’t say it hasn’t been a ball, or words to that effect, says Kit into a Dictaphone as the end for the fugitive couple nears. Of course the irony of the sentiment given the circumstances could hardly be lost upon the viewer.

Bill (Richard Gere) in 1978’s Days of Heaven and his young love Abby (Brooke Adams) are not as hard pressed as Kit and Holly in Badlands though in masquerading as brother and sister while they roam America in 1916 they are running a risk. In part the subterfuge is forced upon them. They are from the Chicago slums and hot-headed Bill, having beaten up the foreman at the foundry where he worked, needs to be watchful. Also along for the ride is his younger, bona fide sister Linda, an observer, participant and narrator (through voice-over) of the events that unfold when the three arrive, along with a small battalion of impoverished individuals and families in the same position, to harvest the wheat crop of a wealthy Texan farmer (Sam Shephard).

The terminally ill farmer lives alone in a house overlooking the fields. Those he gives seasonal employment to may wonder about him – Bill and Abby openly do so – and the life he leads amid such opulence but in essence their hand to mouth existences are as removed from his as day is from night.

But Abby’s attractiveness stands out for the farmer across the divide. Taking a shine to her, he overcomes his timidity and invites her to stay on once the wheat harvest is completed. Abby eventually agrees, provided that her ‘brother’ Bill and Linda are included in the deal. Thus begins a bucolic existence for all four. Though unhappy to have to stand idly by and watch as another man woos his woman, Bill manages to put aside some of this feeling while he enjoys the trappings of the good life unexpectedly and suddenly opened up. One suspects he has never experienced the likes of it before.

The farmer has no cast-iron suspicions as to the reality of the situation for quite sometime and treats the three like family. The ‘rivals’ for Abby’s affection even share some genuinely convivial moments. Doubts, however, come into sharper focus not long after the farmer takes Abby’s hand in marriage. This ‘brother and sister’ appear to him to be too touchy-feely for a genuine brother and sister. Before the drama can escalate the increasingly dissatisfied Bill goes away, claiming that there are things he must attend to out east.

Then begins another sublime idyll, one at least the equal of what we have witnessed before. The farmer’s tender solicitation effectively wins Abby over. Initially, she has viewed her marriage to the rich man as an arrangement of convenience though she is less opportunist in outlook than the understandably wary and jealous Bill. But her heart has decided other and she intimates as much to the by this time almost resigned Bill upon his return to the farm. He is left to rue the mistake he made when he urged Abby to accept the farmer’s initial offer to stay. Accepting as he may have become, nature intervenes, upsetting the situation and ruining all chances of a happy ending for any of the four main protagonists. The ‘heavenly’ interludes have been brief.

There is little dialogue in Days of Heaven though Mr Malick’s propensity for voice-over shows through in the figure of Linda. Offscreen voice figures largely in later films by the same director too, but the word ‘thought-over’ might be the more appropriate one to use in considering them. Other, closely related, hallmarks of his style are also vividly glimpsed for the first time. It is simple to recognise natural-born artists of the cinema. They are adept at allowing picture and sound to tell their stories. The pictures they take in doing so are also often breathtakingly beautiful.

Days of Heaven develops the tendency of the director’s camera to eavesdrop on scenes. This will become considerably more marked in 2010’s The Tree of Life, which takes as its subject the life journey of Jack O’Brien, the eldest of three boys reared in a dislocated Texas family. The mother of the household represents the way of grace or love while the father symbolises nature. He tells his sons that their mother is ‘naive’. He ascribes to a dog eat dog view of the world. Jack becomes as conflicted in adulthood as he was as a child. Intercut scenes of the adult at home and work are underpinned with little or no dialogue. Ostensibly it is through the use of other devices such as framing, gesture and facial expression that the adult Jack’s struggle is depicted. Much is conveyed about all the characters in purely cinematic fashion.

This is a tempestuous, troubled environment leavened with transcendent joyful moments that all partake in. Authoritarian as he is, Jack’s father wants to love and be loved. But he deems it essential to drum his cynical worldview into his sons – for their own good. He has been raised in a school of hard knocks. To his credit, seeing the bulk of his dreams of life sadly unrealised, he ultimately apologises to the young Jack for having been so relentless and hard on him. Jack is just as astute and self-aware when he acknowledges to his father, I’m more like you than her (meaning his mother).

The camera as eavesdropper comes to the fore in The Tree of Life. Under the steady hand of Emmanuel Lubezki it frequently skirts the action rather like an onlooker or passer-by whose attention is momentarily waylaid. This has a pronounced distancing effect. As an ‘invisible’ and unacknowledged presence one will never be able to fully ‘participate’ in the action. But that distance without active participation brings with it something of great value: the ability to see clearly what is going on. The German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder achieved the same in his films. The Tree of Life is a deeply moving and human film, no more so than in the scenes toward the conclusion where the adult Jack discovers a sort of peace in his visualisation of a great coming together of the family on some ethereal ‘other side’.

Mr Malick advances further as a consummate artist of what might termed a cinema of beautiful detachment in his 2012 film To the Wonder. Neil (Ben Affleck) is caught between two loves, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Parisian who comes to the United States with her daughter Tatiana to be with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame from his hometown. His doubts about his life and loves are mirrored in the struggles being undergone by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest beset with a crisis of faith.

Purely and simply To the Wonder is a meditation upon love and the double-edged sword love may be. We witness both its power to transform and reinvent lives and the destruction love can leave in her wake when she dies. In some ways reminiscent of Mrs O’Brien in The Tree of Life, Marina is as spontaneous and loving as a little girl, the ideal companion to Tatiana, whose father lives in France. Neil, by comparison, is staid, a man uncomfortable with strong feelings. Nonetheless, when things are good between them and the child for whom they assume shared responsibility, they are very good. We are reminded of the best moments the O’Brien’s and the farmer and his three companions share in The Tree of Life and Days of Heaven respectively. This is human love at its empowering best.

But Tatiana will sound a note of warning about life in America. There’s something missing, she will say. That perceived lack is as pertinent to the girl’s mother as it is herself. Marina often gazes wide-eyed in wonder at what she sees around her in her new home of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Their legal stay in the country at an end, mother and daughter return to Europe. They have not resided long enough in the new and vast, if peculiarly empty, world to truly settle into the different rhythm of life.

For Marina the time apart from Neil is brief but long enough for him and Jane to reignite what they once had. Their ambrosial days together meet an abrupt, unhappy end and before long Neil finds himself back where he was with Marina. She tells him she would’ve stayed all along rather than go back to Paris – where she was unable to find her feet again – had he asked her to do so. But back together with her Neil is no more able to truly commit to Marina than he was the first time round. He loves her but is unable to fully align his life with hers.

In one of his addresses from the pulpit Father Quintana declares that nothing can be done for those unfortunates unable to commit or choose. This is his Achilles heel as much as it is Neil’s. In the poverty and heartache visible wherever he turns he has lost sight of God and the Christ he talks about daily. If all he can offer those suffering are words what use is he or his credo? He literally hides from one parishioner rather than reveal his own inadequacy. Neil becomes as distant in his relations with Marina and an inevitable breach opens up in the lives of both men.

The camera is as mobile, ‘distant’ and yet revelatory in To the Wonder as it was in Mr Malick’s previous two masterpieces about love. Pristine images sweep the viewer along and narrate the story in ways that render long verbal exchanges unnecessary. It is rare to see a trio of films that uplift the cinematic art form to the degree that Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder do. They are lessons in how to tell stories through image and sound, the natural domain of the art.

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