Blog Directory CineVerse: August 2021

Irish-American cinema's best-kept secret

Monday, August 30, 2021

Folklore and tall tales are among the social currency of many cultures across the planet, with the Irish being no exception. But what if the larger-than-life myths your grandparents tell you as a bedtime story turn out to be true? That’s the cinematic narrative approach taken by filmmaker John Sayles in his memorable movie The Secret of Roan Inish. Our CineVerse group recently got a crash course in Gaelic and selkies as we explored this visually lush and thematically rich picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a review of our talking points.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or rewarding about The Secret of Roan Inish?

  • This is a family film for all ages, but it’s not Disney-fied, dumbed-down, overly sentimental and schmaltzy, or bloated with unnecessary special effects. Arguably, this is a movie that can be appreciated more by adults – many of whom have lost the ability to use their imagination and tap into inner child-like sensibilities – than kids, although it’s a perfectly appropriate film for families with young through older children, too.
  • This was a departure for Sayles, who is otherwise mostly known for films rooted in realism and specific periods that focus on sociocultural and sociopolitical themes.
  • The narrative shifts temporally, with many flashbacks and seemingly exaggerated sequences (that prove to not be tall tales at all but realistic accounts) upending the linearity of the story.
  • “The story unfolds forwards and backwards, simultaneously. This approach in the film gives one a strong sense of the connection between past and present, with Fiona as a link to the future,” wrote Jungian analyst Lara Newton.
  • Sayles isn’t flashy in his directing choices, avoiding grandiose gestures, showy camera movements, clever editing, and attention-getting special effects. With the help of master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captivates us with outstanding outdoor photography, we come to embrace this story organically. The visuals are helped by the decision to shoot on location in Donegal, Ireland, with certain sequences shot at the Isle of Mull in Argyll, Scotland.

Themes explored

  • Harmonizing with nature and restoring balance. Fiona, who herself is a dark one born to each new generation of the Coneelly family, is the bridge between the past and the future and the catalyst that will bring back her brother and rekindle a bond with the seals and the island of Roan Inish. Her steadfastness, honesty, and fearlessness help ultimately inspire her loved ones to embrace their old way of life, which involved coexisting amicably with nature on the island.
    • Movie reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “The real Irish, the film seems to say, have been corrupted by having civilization imposed on them in the loss of their mystic harmony with the sea. The film spends much time showing the art of lost crafts like thatching and the tarring of boats.”
  • The virtue of keeping an open mind and thinking like a child, even when reality is blended with fantasy. This is a story about magic and myth that has to be taken literally, as it is told with realistic details and, except for the grandfather’s tall tale flashback scenes, is depicted as factual. Fiona’s actual younger brother’s return to the family after living with the seals; the grandparents and cousin also believe in the supernatural elements at work.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “The secret of John Sayles’ ‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ is that it tells of this young girl with perfect seriousness. This is not a children’s movie, not a fantasy, not cute, not fanciful. It is the exhilarating account of the way Fiona rediscovers her family’s history and reclaims their island. If, by any chance, you do not believe in Selkies, please at least keep an open mind, because in this film Selkies exist in the real world, just like you and me.”
  • The power of love, lineage, storytelling, and tradition. Fiona doesn’t give up on her little brother; her elders don’t dismiss her as a psychologically disturbed or overly imaginative child, giving credence to the legends and tales of old passed down from earlier generations; and this extended family stays loyal and true to its roots and bloodline.

Similar works

  • Into the West
  • The Golden Seal
  • The Indian in the Cupboard
  • The Water Horse
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • The Secret Garden
  • Life of Pi
  • Field of Dreams
  • Tuck Everlasting

Other works by John Sayles

  • The Return of the Secaucus Seven
  • The Brother From Another Planet
  • Eight Men Out
  • Matewan
  • Passion Fish
  • Lone Star
  • Sunshine State


Picture perfect on its golden anniversary

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

For Cineversary podcast episode #38, host Erik Martin welcomes back Barna Donovan, film professor at Saint Peter’s University and author of several books on the cinema, including Blood, Guns, and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences, and a Thirst for Violence, and Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious. Erik and Barna revisit the Royal Theater, turn that dusty old projector on, and examine Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show as it prepares to celebrate a 50th anniversary this autumn, exploring why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.
Barna Donovan

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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That girl can wing

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Greta Gerwig is quickly proving herself to be a female film force to be reckoned with, not only in front of the camera but especially behind it (as evidenced, most recently, by her fantastic reimagining of Little Women, released in 2019). Our CineVerse group made a date last week with Lady Bird, Gerwig’s 2017 film about a quirky and memorable teenage girl, and quickly fell in love with its many charms. Here’s a recap of our discussion (to listen to a recording of our group conversation, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or rewarding about Lady Bird?

  • Instead of being a tale about a maturing girl finding love and romance, this is a story primarily about the difficult relationship between a teenage daughter and her mother and how they need to appreciate each other more.
  • It doesn’t follow the same predictable cliché paths that perhaps other coming-of-age teenage comedy typically would. For example, the losing of Lady Bird’s virginity isn’t some profound, romantic, or grandiose experience. Lady Bird isn’t some ultra-hip, edgy, completely nonconformist character designed to set trends; she follows trajectories expected of real-life adolescents, like sucking up to the cool crowd and liking the Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morrissette instead of obscure bands with more street cred. Consider that the main character lacks finer artistic sensibilities, is an undependable friend, and is an unexceptional student. Also, ponder that the teachers and clergy at the school are kind and understanding.
  • The film deftly achieves a nice balance totally between comedy and drama, minus the need for maudlin sensibilities.
    • Lara Zarum of The Village Voice wrote: “Lady Bird is a rare bird: sentimental without being saccharine, emotional without being contrived, able to conjure tears without yanking at our heartstrings while the music swells. Its matter-of-factness is what makes the film ultimately so wrenching. There’s no great tragedy here, and no great uplift; just life, as it’s actually lived, and the moments that make you who you are.”
  • Some of this story and its characters are semi-autobiographical, as writer/director Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, had a controlling mother who worked as a nurse, and assumedly experienced many of the same feelings and events that Lady Bird does.

Themes explored

  • The often awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood.
  • The generation and communication gap between teenagers and their parents. Lady Bird and her mother have a strained relationship because they don’t know how to talk to each other or empathize with one another. They both take each other for granted: Marion is hyper-critical of her daughter and tries to micromanage her without being sensitive to what Lady Bird is going through or feeling, and Lady Bird doesn’t appreciate her mother’s intentions, hard work, and sacrifices she makes. While they repel each other, ironically, they are very similar in their steadfast ways, stubbornness, and convictions.
    • “In a way, it is about how impossible it is for teenagers to imagine the emotional lives of their parents, or to acknowledge those stricken elders’ devastating sense of abandonment and uselessness when the child leaves home and they have to suppress the symptoms of anger, competitive rage, and loss,” wrote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
  • Peer pressure and the importance of social acceptance. Lady Bird imposes pressure on herself to become deflowered, appeal to the popular and rich kids in school (to the detriment of her best friend), act in rebellious and forbidden ways (such as dissing the guest speaker and stealing her teacher’s grade book), and get stone drunk at a college party.
  • “Liking” vs. “loving, “ or appreciating your roots and your past. Throughout much of the film, Lady Bird expresses her dissatisfaction with her hometown of Sacramento and her yearning to spread her wings and live in a more culturally enriching environment. But by the end of the movie, she realizes that she misses home.
    • Recall the exchange between the nun and Lady Bird: Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento. Lady Bird: I do? Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care. Lady Bird: I was just describing it. Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love. Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention. Sister Sarah Joan: Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
    • Lady Bird asks her mother if she likes her. Marion replies that she loves her, but her daughter responds, “But do you like me?” A parent’s unconditional love for her child is assumed, but that parent may not like, admire, or respect her child much, which seems to be the case with Marion.
    • Similarly, Lady Bird realizes that she loves Sacramento after leaving it, even though she didn’t like her hometown while she lived there.
    • Diksha Sundriyal of The Cinemaholic wrote: “In the final monologue, she acknowledges her love for both of them. She thinks about the first time she drove around the city and how different it felt to her while also being all the same as it had always been. And the fact that she wanted to share this with her mother is the testament of how close they actually are to each other. She also addresses herself as Christine, which means she has shed over the Lady Bird phase, and has finally got around to accepting herself as is rather than what she thinks she should be.”

Similar works

  • Rushmore
  • Election
  • Boyhood
  • The Lovers
  • The Edge of Seventeen
  • Saved!
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles
  • The Virgin Suicides

Other films directed by or starring Greta Gerwig

  • Little Women
  • Francis Ha
  • Mistress America


Meet Billy, master house of cards builder

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Billy Liar, one of the great charlatans of cinema and the subject of a fascinating early 1960s British comedy by director John Schlesinger. Our CineVerse group took a trip to the UK last week (metaphorically speaking) to investigate this underappreciated gem of a movie and came away with the following discoveries (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or fulfilling about Billy Liar?

  • The picture is one of several British New Wave films, influenced by the French New Wave that came before it. British New Wave movies adopted a cinema variety/documentary approach, favored social realism, and were often shot in real locations – in Billy Liar, that meant Yorkshire and Bradford.
  • Billy Liar also belongs to a subgenre called the “angry young men” movie, which commonly depicted working-class male characters disheartened by contemporary society. These films often tackled social, political, and cultural problems and emphasized a gritty, realistic look and vibe.
  • This proved to be an early and breakout role for young new star Julie Christie, whose free-spirited and vivacious Liz commands the screen and serves as the perfect would-be muse for Billy.

Themes at work

  • The seductive nature of fantasy and illusion. Arguably, Billy chooses not to depart for the promise and excitement of London with Liz because his prospects and fortunes there cannot possibly live up to his fantasies. This movie also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of daydreaming your way through life, which results in Billy’s grandmother turning ill, his romantic relationships falling apart, and him possibly being prosecuted by his former employer.
  • The inevitability of accountability. Billy time and again demonstrates that he is not reliable or responsible in his duties at home, at work, or in relationships. But perhaps it’s the advice his mother gives him at the end of the film that forces him to confront his responsibilities and ultimately choose to remain at home. She says: “We need you at home, lad… If you’re in any more trouble, Billy, it’s not something you can leave behind you, you know. You put it in your suitcase, and you take it with you.” Interestingly, the cartons of milk that Billy purchases represent the purity and nurturing power of mother’s milk, or his mother’s advice, which contributes to him missing the train.
  • The generation gap and the vast gulf between parents and their growing children.
  • New world versus old world. In tandem with the theme of generational divides, Billy Liar suggests the contrast between pre-swinging London New Britain and old Britain (as demonstrated by the demolition of several old edifices and buildings being replaced by modern towers and structures) and between older, antiquated, and racist values and newer more open-minded values.
    • Blogger Richard Keeble wrote: “Billy’s ambrosia is linked to the very real new world he has been exposed to through his education and the surrounding societal change… He has been seduced by the promises of the new world… Liz represents the new spirit of 1960s Britain at its most dazzling; she represents the elusive promises of the New World… She encourages his fantasies, even appealing in several of them as his wife or official aid. These are expressions of his rebellion against the world of his parents and grandparents… The film portrays the New World, for better or worse, as fundamentally disruptive. It will inevitably fall to Billy, therefore, to make a choice between its promises and his responsibilities at home.”

Similar works

  • British New Wave films and movies that imbue kitchen-sink realism and explore angry young men characters, including Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, Bitter Harvest, and Alfie
  • The James Thurber short story The Secret the Life of Walter Mitty
  • Jo Jo Rabbit

Other films by John Schlesinger

  • A Kind of Loving
  • Far from the Madding Crowd
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Sunday Bloody Sunday
  • The Day of the Locust
  • The Falcon and the Snowman


Hollywood builds a house

Friday, August 6, 2021

Superhero movies inspire our imaginations to soar above the clouds. Science-fiction features tantalize with their futuristic prospects of technological innovation. And fantasy films bring out the hidden adventurer in us all, arousing bravery in the pursuit of an impossible quest.

But it’s flicks about fixer-uppers and homes being built in the real world that may prove to motivate us more in the long run, many believe. The reason? We can better relate to these challenging housing endeavors undertaken by serious and comedic characters alike in a variety of motion pictures. Been there, done that is the takeaway by plenty of viewers, while yet-to-be homeowners consider the cautionary tales to be learned from some of these home improvement and construction projects depicted by Hollywood.

I recently wrote an article recommending several films focused on home improvement and construction, published in the Dallas Morning News, available here.


Life in the big city--from a 7-year-old's vantage point

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Revered by cinema scholars, filmmakers, and fans as one of the true pioneering works of the independent film movement, Little Fugitive, co-created by written Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley, stands as a verité Americana masterwork and classic time capsule of life in early 1950s New York City – as told from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy and his older brother. Using nonactors and shooting primarily outdoors on location among thousands of New Yorkers, the picture still wows nearly seven decades later, perhaps functioning more effectively as an accurate sociocultural document than a work of commercial entertainment. We applied the CineVerse approach to this film last week and arrived at several realizations (To listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What took you by surprise about Little Fugitive and left a strong impression?

  • This film serves as an important bridge between the Italian neorealism period of the 1940s and the French new wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Françoise Truffaut cited it as a major influence on the latter, particularly thanks to its guerrilla filmmaking approach to on-location shooting to capture the immediacy and honesty of a particular time, place, and community naturalistically.
  • This movie is credited as being the first commercially successful independent American feature film. It grossed four times its production budget of approximately $30,000, earned an Academy award nomination for best writing, and was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
  • A major reason behind it success was the ability of the filmmakers to shoot on location, practically incognito, thanks to the invention of a one-of-a-kind concealed strap-on camera that didn’t require a tripod or big crew. Co-director Morris Engel was able to strap this small handheld camera on his shoulder and shoot up close and personal to his subjects, allowing him to organically document the rhythms and actions of real New Yorkers.
    • Importantly, the filmmakers opted not to use low-cost and lightweight 16-mm cameras/film stock, which could have provided the same mobile camera freedom and flexibility. Using 35 mm created a higher-quality, less gritty image, making Little Fugitive look like many other professionally-shot Hollywood black and white movies at the time.
  • Additionally, the film employed non-professional actors. The casting of Richie Andrusco, a seven-year-old with no acting experience who was discovered while waiting in line for a carousel ride, is inspired; the entire film and its success rides on our belief in Andrusco’s portrayal of Joey and his effortless ability to act naturally, never breaking the fourth wall or giving an over-rehearsed line reading.
  • Wisely, the filmmakers emphasized character, look, and slice-of-life spontaneity over narrative or plot, apparently allowing many of the scenes to unfold spontaneously or present themselves as happy accidents (like the abrupt rainstorm that occurs, or the way Andrusco hits the baseball in the batting cage).
  • This picture stands as an incredible time capsule of a very particular place and time in American history, when kids idolized cowboys, parents seemed less micromanaging of their offspring, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Coney Island were major Big Apple draws, and you could eat, drink, and make merry on the spare change in your pocket.
    • It’s also fascinating to see the friendly coexisting and intermingling of white and black New Yorkers, even before anti-segregation laws went into effect.

Themes at work

  • The innocence and simplicity of childhood and the secret life of kids. Despite being surrounded by a complex urban mileu and countless adults running things, little Joey navigates his way to fun and fulfillment, making the viewer recall his or her own youth and appreciating the small details that matter to kids.
  • The wonderful randomness of life. A sudden rainstorm, an unexpected urge to use the bathroom, the unforeseen emergence of a means of needed income (collecting pop bottles), and the lucky circumstance in which Joey’s brother is able to find his lost sibling all stand as examples of how life is often unplanned and unscripted, as this movie commonly feels and looks.
  • The resourcefulness and resiliency of children. Joey, only seven years old, proves himself rugged, tough, self-confident, and physically and emotionally capable of caring for himself despite extreme circumstances – including being lost, lacking money and shelter, and feeling guilt and fear from presumably killing his brother.

Similar works

  • Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts
  • The 400 Blows (1959) and other works of the French new wave
  • Italian neorealism films, including Bicycle Thieves and Rome: Open City
  • Faces and other works by American independent movement pioneer John Cassavetes
  • Kes
  • The Spirit of the Beehive
  • I Was Born, But…
  • Home Alone
  • Small Change

Other films by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin

  • Lovers and Lollipops
  • Weddings and Babies


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