Diane

The station platform sat low underneath the train doors, with the limbo space of concrete to wheels being wider than usual.  Diane could feel the papers inside her shoulder bag through the leather fabric, she could read the words in her mind.  On the journey into the city she loosened the straps on her bag and removed the papers to the wooden table in front of her seat several times, to check that they had not disappeared.  Walking, with a definite purpose, she glided through the crowds to exit the station, making sure her scarf was tight as she advanced upwards to the lower west side, weaving her bag through the crowd.  It was her second time getting off that train, her second time seeing the city stretch before her as she reached the top of the stairs.  For a moment, she had to recall the way to John’s apartment, and when her memory was validated by the street signs, she took a left, heading deeper into the village.  It was the late evening, and chilly, but the pavements were still busy with people leaving work or going out for dinner.  Diane saw a couple shoulder to shoulder, and ached, hoping that John would be in his apartment when she arrived.  She turned onto John’s street, satisfied at getting there without misdirection, and was relieved at the sight of the seemingly endless row of brownstones, lined with bare leaved trees and dimly lit lampposts.  The apartment building was recognisable amongst the common crowd, due to the bright white flowers that John’s landlord, Patricia, kept in the bottom floor window.  Narrow steps led to the front door, which was opened with a small push, and the warmth inside was instantly noticeable, causing Diane to remove her scarf from over her mouth to catch her breath.  Patricia would be asleep to the right of her, and John’s apartment was on the fourth floor, meaning Diane had to take more stairs around and around.   Somewhat lethargically, she ascended, wondering whether John would be on the other side of the door waiting for her, or whether he would be asleep, or whether he had forgotten about her coming at all, and was at the club with Franklin and the others.  She had her answer minutes later when after reaching under the doormat for the key, she opened the door to an empty room.  John’s apartment consisted of three rooms including a small bathroom, so Diane was deflated immediately, not even bothering to call out John’s name.  She checked the bedroom, seeing only stacks of papers and books on the bed, and not a thirty-year-old man, and thought perhaps he was down at the club after all.  This thought slightly angered her.  John’s apartment was a mess, however a beaming light of cleanliness stood out to Diane, a note that was laid on the table by the bedroom door, the only area lacking any books.  Diane picked the note up, seeing John’s scrawled handwriting.  It read:

Diane,

I am sorry that I could not be there on your arrival.  I know that you are probably thinking that I have forgotten about you, but I promise you that is not the case.  I am on my way to Europe and will be halfway there by the time you are reading this.  I tried to get a message to you before you got on the train, but everything has been extremely rushed, and last minute.  The paper want stories from the front line before American troops are sent over.  I am worried about their motives, and will be fighting for my angle, but it means that my final deliverance will be in Petrograd.  You must know how much this means to me, and so I hope that you can forgive me when I return in a few months.  I managed to organise a meeting for you with Ernest Baldwin, all you have to do is give the office a call and organise a time.  I believe he has a translation for you, and you could pitch him a story.  Also, Franklin and Janey might be popping in and out, don’t forget to pay them a visit at the club.  They like you!

Neither sincerely nor love are the right words,

John.

P.S. Patricia has frozen the rent on the promise that I will bring her back some flower seeds from Europe.  She will cook for you as well.

Diane read the note a few times, as conflict rose inside her.  Petrograd, he was finally going, he would finally get to correspond with the revolutionaries, to finish writing his book.  A few months, that was a long time to be in New York without John, in Greenwich society with all its posers and poets, without the allowance from her father.  The translation was money, dull payment for a dull task, and she doubted Baldwin would listen to any of her story ideas, he was a pig and a capitalist, caring little for the stories on real people that Diane wrote. Her thoughts were interrupted when the apartment door was burst through by two people Diane was sure hated her.  Janey, the shade below middle-aged fanatical socialist, and Franklin, the waspy poet who John went to Georgetown University with.  They were both very much on their way to be very much drunk.

“Diane,” Janey said, nearly collapsing onto the floor.  “Well, this is a surprise.”
“John did mention she was coming,” Franklin said, holding Janey up.
“Oh, don’t cover for him Frank.  She’s not stupid.” The note was still in Diane’s hand and suddenly embarrassed she scrunched it up and shoved it into her coat pocket.
“He better have told you where he was going,” Janey said.
“He did,” Diane said, stood up against the wall.  “It was a matter of timing that’s all.”
“You should never expect John to be anywhere, I suppose you know that by now.” Franklin had begun rifling through the cupboards, rotating and inspecting each bottle that he found.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” Diane asked.
“Firstly, drink,” Franklin said, settling on a bottle of whiskey that had a couple of inches remaining.  “But primarily we are actually here for something.  John wrote up the minutes for the last meeting, because Susan was ill, and we need to take it down to city hall tomorrow to prove something to that bastard councillor again.”
“You are going to city hall tomorrow?  The party must be doing well.”
“Ah, Diane.  We still do not like that word party but yes, our numbers have been increasing.  You could join us tomorrow, I suppose.”
“No, she could not,” Janey said, looking up from her own searching.  “It is going to be impossible to find it amongst all this mess.  Next time you speak to John tell him to clean this place up.”
“I plan on cleaning it myself,” Diane said, starting to sweat in her coat and scarf.  “And I have plans tomorrow anyway.  I have to meet Ernest Baldwin.”
“Baldwin, that old goat,” Franklin said.  “I don’t know why John still works for him.  He has the ability to write for himself.”
“John doesn’t have the prose for fiction,” Janey said.  “Here it is, actually labelled.”
Janey held the paper out in front of Diane and Franklin, with a smile.  “John has been giving me his poems to read Janey, I wouldn’t give up on his prose yet,” Franklin said.  “Are we getting out of here?”
“We are.  Come to the club tonight Diane?  I think there is someone singing.”
“I am going to rest tonight,” Diane said.  “Thank you for the offer.”
“Very well.  Come tomorrow night then, no need to be a stranger in this town.  Come on Frank.”
“Good luck with Baldwin,” Franklin said, finishing the whiskey that he had poured for himself.

Diane made sure the door was locked behind them, then finally removed some clothing, gazing around the room at the piles of books, papers, empty mugs, and glasses that John had left behind for her.  She went into the bedroom and sat at the end of the bed, in-between some hefty hardbacks, pushing some onto the floor as she collapsed backwards, falling asleep nestled within an assortment of literature.

The following morning, she woke up so cold that she imagined that she was dying.  Aggressively she cleared the bed, and yanked the thin blanket over her, shivering.  It was too cold to go back to sleep and she was forced to get out of bed to hop around to stay warm.  Getting ready for the day she talked to herself, listing what she had to get done: call the paper’s office and speak to Baldwin, unpack and clean the apartment, and try to and find a way to contact John.  Before attempting these tasks, Diane took the papers out of her bag to look at them once again, running her hands over the raised ink that she had typed out, then when assured that her writing still existed, she left the apartment to find a telephone.  Downstairs, Patricia’s door was intimidating but resolute – Diane gave it a couple of hearty knocks, and the door flung open almost immediately.  “I’m Diane, John’s friend, I was here last month,” Diane said, looking down at a short woman in her sixties.

“Of course, I remember,” Patricia said.  “Come in, have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“No, there’s no food in John’s apartment.  I was wondering if I could use your telephone?”
“Yes, please, it’s right over there.  That man never has anything substantial in, I’ll make you something whilst you take your call.”
“Thank you.”

The phone was sat upon a tall table next to the wide window that looked out onto the street.  Along the window were a series of flowers, all largely bloomed and either lilac, yellow, or white, the smell of them whipping Diane in the face as she stood over the phone.  She dialled for the operator, waited for a second, then asked the receiver to put her through to the New York Times, then waited another second.  A female voice answered.

“Hello, this is Diane Allen calling for Mr. Ernest Baldwin please,” Diane said, stomach revolving.
“Can I ask what the nature of the call is?” The woman replied.
“It is about John Lear, actually it’s about me.  He should be expecting my call.”
“I will put you through now.”  Diane waited a few more seconds.
“Hello, who’s this?” Mr. Baldwin answered.
“It’s Diane Allen, I’m a friend of John Lear.  We met a while ago, John told me to call.”
“Yes, the translator.”
“And a writer.”
“The translator and the writer.  Very good.  What can I do for you?”
“John told me to call about a translation you had for me, and that we could meet to talk about it.”
“Sure, how does this afternoon sound?  At Pym’s?”
Diane certainly was not expecting a meeting so soon.  “That would be fine.”
“Okay, we will meet there at two pm.  Do you know where it is?”
“Yes, see you then.” Mr. Baldwin did not say goodbye, and Diane heard the thud, followed by the buzz of the empty line.  She gently placed the phone down and turned around to see a plate of eggs waiting for her, black pepper visible in the fluffy yellow peaks.
“That was efficient,” Patricia said.  “You can eat now.”
“Thank you,” Diane said, sitting down.  “You don’t happen to know where Pym’s is, do you?”
“Yes, it’s a restaurant down in Soho, I believe on Sullivan.  It’s very fancy, not the sort of place where I would go, definitely not John.”
“Thanks again.  Did John speak to you before he left?”
“He did.  We spoke about putting the rent on hold, and that he’d cover me by the end of the year.  I trust him, so long as he brings me back some vibrant flowering seeds from Europe.  This room needs more colour, don’t you think?” Diane looked over at the overflowing flowers by the window.
“Sure.  Did he say anything about where he was going or how to contact him?”
“All I know is that he’s going to the front lines.  Idiotic, if you ask me.  If he wanted to kill himself, he could have waited until the draft starts here.  I’m sorry, I don’t mean to scare you, John will be alright.  He’s very resourceful, and a good writer from what I hear, not like I’d know what’s good and what isn’t.  Don’t forget the tea.” Diane took a sip of the black tea by the food that she had almost finished.  It tasted pleasant enough.

The city had intimidated Diane deeply when she came out to see John at the end of the previous year, at least this time around she knew familiar places that comforted her, such as the shoemakers across the street from the apartment, or the café on the next street over that refused to open when it was raining.  John’s friends often teased him that he knew Greenwich, the library, the park, and little else of New York, and was more assimilated with the foggy working unions that littered the East Coast.  When coming to the club for the first time with John, Diane did observe how much his peers poked fun at his adventures, almost trying to impress her, although Diane did agree on the strangeness of John’s desire to be a New York City journalist when he spent more time in other places.  She was supposed to stay for a week, to get her work out to editors, and ended up staying for several months, through Christmas and the New Year, until she had to go home.  It was the last dregs of the winter when she was back in the city again, trying to keep her balance on the paving stones beneath her feet, as cranes swung above her head.  Diane had hoped to pay the library a visit before meeting Ernest Baldwin but figured it was better to be early, than late.

Pym’s was relatively easy to locate, and not a far walk from the apartment.  It was one of many elite catering establishments in the area and was characterised by much of the city’s late 19th-century development – a replica of Parisian style.  For a lunch hour on a Wednesday, everyone was impeccably dressed, and Diane’s simple attire made her worry about her first impressions, and she had to remind herself that she was a writer and not a socialite living off a deceased aunts fortune.  The white dresses and the crystal glasses were a giveaway that many of the men and women who were sat around the circular tables had never worked a day in their lives.  Diane entered sheepishly, and gripping onto her shoulder bag she informed the host on who she was meeting, and naturally, Baldwin was already upstairs with a table waiting for her.  The host took her hat, coat, and scarf, and Diane took a spiral staircase made of marble, careful not to trip and fall back down to the façade seating, from the business seating.  Even on the second floor, the ceiling was still miles above her head, the tops of the European pillar’s touching a smoke decayed roof.  Diane saw Mr. Baldwin before he saw her, when the host pointed him out.  He was a sat at a table by the balcony that leaned over the first floor, with his legs spread wide and one arm drooped over the edge, the other knocking a cigarette into an ashtray.  Mr. Baldwin had sharp features, grey topped hair with a dark moustache and high cheekbones, sporting a jacket and a waistcoat, that a stomach was forcing its way through, and as Diane got closer, he transformed from austere to rather ghoulish.

“Mr. Baldwin?” Diane asked, coming to the table that was separated from the others.
“Are you my lunch date?” Mr. Baldwin asked, standing up.
“I think I am, Diane Allen.” Diane outstretched her hand.
“Ernest Baldwin, please sit down.” Diane took a seat, and Mr. Baldwin sat more upright with her at the table.
“So, John speaks of you a great deal,” Mr. Baldwin said.  “Whenever he’s in the office that is.”
“Really?”
“Sure, sure.  I mean sometimes it’s difficult to get a word out of him, but when he talks, he really talks.  Got a true voice that man, that’s why we sent him to Europe of course, couldn’t be sending any lousy beat reporter to cover such calamity.  Though I suppose because of his absence you are in the city alone?”
“Him not being here was a surprise, but I know some people in the city.”
“I’m afraid he had to go out on short notice.  There’s an expediency to this whole war, we have to get stories out to the people before any decisions are made about our involvement as a nation.”
“And he will end in Petrograd?”
“He shall.  John’s been pushing me on that for over a year, and he’s finally got his wish, just has to put a few words to the trenches on the way.”
“Is there any way I can contact him, to make sure he’s safe?”
“Don’t worry.  I told him to check in on the regular.  We aren’t going to talk about John the entire time we have together, are we?”
“No, we don’t have to.  What about the translation?”
“Yes.  Let me find it.”  Mr. Baldwin bent over to his bag and came back up with a manuscript that was thicker than any of the books in John’s apartment.  The papers had a gold tinge to them.  “Don’t be scared,” Mr. Baldwin continued, dumping the manuscript on the table.  “It’s a French novel, it is French that you specialise in, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but I have to admit I’ve never done anything so dense.”
“Oh, I think it’s mostly down to the French language.  The economy of words policy we have at the times does not really apply to them.  The truth is that I took it on as a favour for a friend in publishing, apparently the writer is the next Marcel Proust, except a more understandable one.  Think complex for the masses.  My friend tells me that it has sold very well in Europe, and an English version would do well also.”
“Mr. Baldwin, this would take several months, even a year to complete.  It would require daily attention.”
“Yes, and that’s why the publishing house, and some of the times’ bankroll, are willing to pay fifteen thousand dollars for the translation, that we would give you five thousand of as an advance.”
“Fifteen thousand for this one translation, with five in advance?”
“That’s what I said.  I could write you out a cheque for the five right now, if you accept the offer that is.”
“It might be silly of me to say, but you haven’t seen any of my other translations, and I’ve never done one so long.  Why offer it to me, surely there are other translators in New York?”
“I believe in my instincts, and I believe in John’s assessment of character.  Tell you what, you can think about it whilst we eat.  I’ll call over the waiter.”

The lunch started with mushrooms with toast and was followed by lamb with a mint sauce, with both the diners choosing a coffee over a desert.  Diane tried to eat politely and had gotten used to a level of fine dining whilst eating with her mother at home, but the cuisine of New Hampshire could not compete with that of Pym’s.  It was difficult to make her decision when her concentration was on the quality of the food, and by the time the coffee was brought to the table, Diane had not thought about it much at all.  “Well, have you made up your mind?” Mr. Baldwin asked.
“I have,” Diane said.  “I’ll do it.”
“Very good.  I’ll write out the cheque whilst we wait on the bill.”
Diane’s chance, her real reason for bothering for the lunch, was dripping away with the diminishing warmth of the coffee.  “I was wondering if you could take a look at my own writing?”
“It seems only fair, now that we are here.” Diane reached down to her bag, and with extreme caution lifted a set of papers out, a short article on a Fisherman’s union revolt, her second-best work.  She handed it to Mr. Baldwin, who conjured a pair of glasses from his jacket pocket and propped them at the end of his nose.  He grunted along as he read, and Diane attempted to look anywhere else other than his eye line, the grand chandeliers, the afternoon wine on the next table, the swinging doors of a lazy kitchen.  Mr. Baldwin looked up sooner than Diane was expecting.
“This is some lovely writing,” he said.  “Your education is shining throughout.  It is not the sort of thing we would publish of course, but it has potential.  It is John-esque, without the gravitas in the story.” Diane was a short hand movement away from a steak knife.
“Would you publish something in that style, on a different story perhaps?” She asked.
“Perhaps.  You should stick at it, whenever you are not working on the translation.”
“I have other work that I could show you.”
“Unfortunately, I do not have the time to read every small-town event story that you carry around with you Ms. Allen.  I would encourage you to broaden your horizon to bigger ideas, and I would be happy to read future work over lunch again, or a slow dinner, or an evening visit to my house in the city.  Whatever you desire.” Diane held the lamb down hard at the back of her throat.
“Thank you for lunch and thank you for the employment.  I will keep you updated on my progress.”

The addition of the French manuscript to Diane’s bag created a severe pain in her shoulder, and on the way to the bank she had to alternate sides numerous times.  She cashed the cheque into the account she made the year before, leaving her with the most money she had ever earned without doing anything for it, and took out some money to walk around with.  That afternoon, after lugging the manuscript back to the apartment, and resting it in the spot where John’s note was, Diane took to cleaning the apartment.  It was an arduous activity, that gave her a temporary negation of stress with each item that was thrown away or put in its right position.  Soon clothes were back in the wardrobe, and empty whiskey bottles were ready for the garbage.  Diane unearthed John’s typewriter last, somehow staying in good condition despite all abuse it had received from a man whose profession relied on it.  All the time that Diane was scuttering around the apartment, the French manuscript was staring up at her, the brick of foreign language taunting her frantic tidying.  She had only read the title, which was: La collection d’amis, the collection of friends, at least she could translate that.  Once the apartment had reached a more moveable state, Diane hauled the manuscript to beside the typewriter and the dwindling blank papers that John had left there.  She opened her notebook, which itself was almost full, and turned over the first page of the manuscript, hearing it crumble as the title touched the shaky wooden desk.  Diane’s practice of French had been sparse since she went to school in Paris as a teenager, and the first page puzzled her.  She needed a dictionary.  Under not an insignificant amount of duress, she made the decision to leave the translation until she had the proper equipment, including more paper, a new pen, a fresh notebook, and a more reliable ribbon for the typewriter, and started to get ready to go to the club that evening.

Everyone who frequented Pierre’s called it the club, with its actual name a relic of the previous century, a straggler from the old New York that the artists of Greenwich village despised.  It had been a dignified establishment for the wealthy, and in some ways still was, but its appearance had changed greatly since 1910.  The club was an underground drinking hole, an elongated hovel at the end of some gated steps that were a stone’s throw away from Washington Square Park, squeezed between apartment buildings and two competing tie and hat stores.  Inside was a long bar, that had two casually dressed servers, three on the weekends, and seating opposite that wrapped around an L shaped room.  The club’s regulars knew each other well, but John’s friends liked the spot at the back, where a corner table was indented out of the vision of the windows that looked up at the city.  That night, it was half empty, with a few loners perched at the bar, and groupings of couples by the door – ready to leave if they did not like the vibe.  Diane walked down into the club, and spoke to one of the barmen, who remembered her face as all good barmen do, then she took her generously poured whiskey over to the back table where Janey and Franklin would surely be.  The two of them were sat tight together in the very middle of the corner table, surrounded by a couple of others.  Two men were also stood above them, staying closer to the bar.  Diane took the empty stool in front of the corner table.  She forced out an enthusiastic hello.

“Glad you made it Diane,” Franklin said.  “How’d it go with old Baldwin?”
“Pretty well,” Diane said.  “He’s given me a translation to do.”
“I hope he’s paying you for it,” Janey said. Diane knew that these people both loved and hated to talk about money.
“He is, quite well actually.  It’s not what I’d like to be doing, but it’s something.”
“And what would you like to be doing Diane?” Janey asked.
“She’s a writer, a journalist like Johnny boy,” Franklin said.
“She can speak for herself, what kind of stories do you focus on?  More good Samaritan union ones like John?” The two men who were sat on the table with them stood up and left the three of them, leaving Diane uneasy.
“I like to write about people, individuals mostly,” she said.  “Those who are unwritten about.”
“Are they not unwritten about for a reason?” Franklin asked.
“Some people have great stories to tell without ever been asked about them.”
“You poets are too preoccupied with beauty and wildlife, and sunsets, and romances,” Janey said.  “Diane here is talking about stories and people that actually matter to our society.”
“I’d like to think that I find poetry in the simple things,” Franklin said. Diane was not entirely confident about what stories she was talking about and was only assured by the writing that that was still concealed in her shoulder bag.
“Your poems deserve more recognition,” Diane said.
“They do.  My time will come.”
“Our time will come,” Janey said.  “Someday soon this town and this country will be ours, and we’ll live in a fair system where all talented artists are recognised.  And untalented ones.”
“Here, here,” Franklin said, raising his glass.
“Did it go well down at City Hall?” Diane asked.
“We’ll have to talk politics another time, I fear.  Here come Anthony and Gloria.”
“I told you not to invite them,” Janey said.

A couple was approaching through the smoke.  Anthony was a tall and impeccably handsome man, with combed blonde hair, wearing a jet-black suit with a bow tie.  Gloria, was petite and pretty, had curly golden hair, and was wearing a black dress, along with a black headband across her forehead, a white bead necklace, and white gloves, which she removed when she got to the table.  Janey and Franklin manoeuvred themselves around so that the couple could sit next to each other.
“Isn’t this place a little seedy for the two of you?” Franklin asked.
“Not at all,” Anthony said.  “We like a place with a bit of character, how goes it old friend?”
“Surviving and drinking.  You know Janey, and this is Diane Allen, a friend of Johns from out of town.  Diane, this is Anthony and Gloria Patch.  Tony is another Georgetown graduate.”
“Nice to meet you,” Diane said, admiring the sheer attractiveness of the pair of them.
“Where is John?” Anthony asked.
“Europe, covering the war for the times,” Franklin said.  “The news of the war has reached the upper echelons of society hasn’t it?”
“Of course it has!” Gloria said.
“He’s teasing, darling,” Anthony said.  “Even at college, John was not one to sit around for too long.  Tell me, Diane, what do you do?”
“I write, or at least I try to,” Diane said.  “What about the two of you?”
“Well, what do we do darling? Let’s see. We go out for dinner, we go to balls, we go upstate to your parents’ house to get outdoors, what else?”
“We go for drinks with friends,” Gloria said.
“They do nothing,” Janey said.  “The Patch’s are members of the galivanting society who would not waste their time getting a sweat going to pay for their meals.”
“Now, let’s not bite this early into the night, Janey,” Franklin said.  “Anthony’s family are essential to the fabric of this city, and one day Anthony will be too.”  Diane could not believe that John would associate with a man like Anthony Patch, or his wife, who was hardly a person at all.  John was repulsed by spongers, by gluttons like them, and had often told Diane in secret that his studying days were plagued by ignorant boys who had bought their place there.
“Exactly,” Anthony went on to say.  “Without the investment from my family, this club of yours might not be standing here today.  The city would still resemble a muddy settlement town.”
“We are very thankful for the Patch company, and everything they’ve done for the city,” Janey said.  “It just stings that a man of your education wastes his life laying around.”
“You could say the same of Franklin.  I did not come here for a lecture Janey.”
“I’m not lecturing.  I say the same things to Franklin about his own idleness.  The world is changing fast, the war in Europe means that it will not be long until lines are drawn here.  One day we all must pick a side.”
“This country will hold stronger than Russia if that’s what you mean.  The oceans help with that, and the fact that we are able to feed all of our people.” Diane was struggling to join the conversation.
“Not all people in this country are able to be fed,” she said.  “In New Hampshire, people who work on small farming properties are starving, and are being forced to wander across state lines for new employment.”
“They will find it in this country.”
“Yes, some will, but some are not afforded the help from those in power who promised it.”
“Ah, so your another revolutionary like these fools?” Diane was about to speak, before Janey cut in.
“Hardly,” she said.  “She’s not a member.”
“How can I be a member of a party that does not exist?” Diane said.
“It exists now, as of this afternoon we have two fully-fledged members.  Franklin and I.”
“That’s right,” Franklin said.  “And by next week they’ll be a hundred of us when the application comes through, after we’ve had our next meeting.”
“Perhaps we can join?” Gloria asked.
“I don’t think we’ll be doing that,” Anthony said.  “This is the kind of membership that will get you arrested, not the kind where you are allowed in the finer seats.”
“When is the next meeting?” Diane asked.  “I’d like to be there.”
“Monday evening,” Franklin said.  “We’d be glad to have you.  In a way you’ll be John’s surrogate, it’s a shame he’s not here to see his hard work come to fruition.”
“He’ll come back from Russia with the edge we need to win,” Janey said.
“Look at you guys,” Anthony said.  “Scheming away.  I feel as though we are a few moments away from being an accessory to a crime, and we have further errands to complete.  Come along Gloria.”

Anthony stood gracefully, holding onto his wife’s shoulder as though she was an inanimate object, and Franklin walked with them to the door, saying a word to them as they put on their overcoats to leave.  Diane shared a brief kinship with Janey, and felt some sense of belonging, for however long it would last.
“There’s not always a call for such intensity,” Franklin said, when he returned to the table.
“Oh, calm down Frank, do you really want to be friends with him anyway?” Janey asked.  “It was talk of the party that scared him off.  Things are different now that it is action over words.”
“Still, he’s harmless.”
“Precisely my point! He’s in the position to do good, has the time, the money, and the connections to really help the cause.  Instead, he does nothing and has no shame about it either.”
“You cannot force a man to believe in something that he does not.”
“He had the same education as you, socialised in the same college clubs, chased the same girls.”
“Yes, but his upbringing was vastly different from mine and John’s.  This has been his life since he was born, I don’t expect him to change now.”
“Look at Diane, she avoided the arrogance of her family.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Diane asked.
“Oh, don’t be naïve,” Janey continued.  “John knows, and we know where you came from.  Basically royalty for New Hampshire standards, you try your best, but you cannot hide it.  I do applaud your ability to act like you and John are on the same level, and I do have faith that you are honest in your beliefs.”
“I gave up my parent’s money when I came to New York, and it was no secret to John where I came from.”
“Then why did you return home to your estate, was it not because you ran out of funds?”
“Not at all.  I hated the idea of going home, but my father was sick, and my mother frenzied.  Then our family dog died, the only companion I had when I was a child.  I had to go home.”
“You left New York because of the bereavement of a family pet?”
“That was part of it, yes.” Janey and Franklin erupted into a cackling laugh, and Diane could not hold back a smile herself.
“All this time, we were convinced you abandoned John here because you couldn’t handle the city life,” Franklin said, still with drink slipping out of his mouth.
“Does John think that away?” Diane said, though she had told John the truth.

She did not receive a clear answer from either of them, who found the whole thing so hilarious that they struggled to speak in cohesive sentences.  Diane knew that John had a kinder heart than a frustrated poet and a woman who was too rebellious and contentious to ever be affectionate towards anything.  The comments about her family stung, mostly down to the truth of them, but Diane made a promise to herself to put that behind her, to gain more control of her own winding path.  She left the club on her own terms and rejected Franklin’s offer to walk her home.  The city was quiet and meandering, floating towards midnight on a fair wind with Friday’s docking in sight.  Diane slept well with alcohol sailing down her and allowed herself the entire morning in bed.  The weekend was ahead of her, a weekend where she must begin working on the translation, that she must shut herself in and get a head start on it.  For long hours on Friday, then Saturday, then Sunday, she would read the manuscript, getting lost in her thoughts of John, the war, Petrograd, and the writing concealed in her bag, and would have to read the same section over and over again.  When it got to Monday morning, she realised that she was still yet to translate anything more than the title and had seen every word of the manuscript without really understanding what the novel was about.  She had eaten with Patricia twice over the weekend, and bought some food for the apartment so that she could work uninterrupted.  Monday was the day of the party meeting and the day Diane decided that she would buy the tools that she needed for the translation, and she left the apartment optimistic.

The typewriter ribbon, notebook, pen, and ink could all be bought from a store called Lardens, somewhere that John had taken Diane.  It was a fair price for all of the items, but it took a chunk out of the walking around money that Diane had taken out.  For the French to English dictionary, she needed to go to the Public Library, her favourite place in the city, and she took the train uptown, then another to Grand Central Station.  The subway was getting busier every time she boarded onto it, and Diane was more comfortable when the train veered above ground into the daylight.  John adored the library as much as she did, and it was a special day when John introduced it to her.  From the outside, the building was a bastion of architectural mastery, inspired by European sensibilities but with its own sense of place and character within the confines of the city, and from the inside, the building was a destination of boundless possibilities.  Diane admired the library, because it was open to all, and a safe place to think and to read and to write, where one could be sat next to someone with opposing views in a completely neutral zone.  Only the books mattered, and Diane shot straight to the second floor to the wide index book that fronted the rows and rows of wheeled shelves.  Some enjoyable detective work was required to deduce what category the dictionary would fall under, and Diane was determined not to call over a member of the staff.  She walked over to the French language section, a distance into the back of the mammoth room, and lo and behold an extensive French to English dictionary glistened out to her on the very first shelf.  Diane removed the book carefully from its position and carried it over to the nearest table, which had the sun beaming down onto it from the oval windows above.  After making a positive judgement on the extensiveness of the dictionary, she took the book to the checkout desk and envied the vocation of the friendly woman who signed it out for her.  Diane told her that she may need the dictionary for some time, and the woman told her that was fine, as long as she came back once a month to get an extension.  Gratification wiggled around Diane’s body to her fingertips, as she paced, without putting a time limit on herself, up and down the floors of the library, scanning across the shelves that most took her interest, passing the odd smile to those studying, and those in retreat from the city.

Diane was late to the party meeting because she could not get going with the translation, something was blocking her way, and unable to scale the obstacle, she stared back and forth from the letters of the typewriter to the words on the manuscript, losing track of time.  Eventually, she made a move, and in a rush she dashed out of the apartment in pursuit of the Jackson building, where the meetings were always held before the party was a party.  Diane attended several meetings with John in the previous year, where he would speak much and herself not much at all, in front of crowds of twenty or thirty.  His heartfelt speeches would echo into the abyss of Jackson Hall, where there was more empty space than there were people listening.  However, walking towards the hall alone, Diane could hear the shouts and cries of the meeting before she got inside.  The main hall was above the entrance door, on a second level that was reached to by symmetrical stairs to the left and to the right. Diane took the left stairs and could see shadows waving on the hall ceiling, the audible debates much clearer when she was on the same level as them.  Across the room were over five hundred attendees, sat in chairs, or stood leaning on pillars, men and women, some carrying their own signs, whispering amongst themselves then either cheering in agreeance or dismay as the leaders of the meeting spoke.  These leaders, or spokespeople, sat on a stage along a rectangular table, their torso and head only visible, having to stand and shout to make an impact.  Whenever it felt pertinent to placate the jeering crowd, a megaphone was passed down the table, usually to Janey.  Diane walked down the sides of the hall, astounded at how many people were in there, more than John could have ever imagined.  The meeting was in full swing, and Diane took out her notebook anticipating possible writing material.  She was familiar with a few of the faces on the stage, not just Janey and Franklin, and even recognised some from the crowd.  Gael Luna was present, the figurehead for the group more extreme than John’s, as was Henry Jameson, a city councillor who was perched firmly on the fence on every cause.  Diane watched on like she was watching a fire.  There were cries of anti-war marches, and partnerships, and correspondence with Russia, and revolution.  It was a passionate debate that allowed a word from everyone, and it was a glorious image for Diane’s eyes.  She noted a great deal that day in her new notebook, and when it was over, when it fizzled out well into the late hours, she engaged Franklin and Janey who were being bombarded with people wanting an application sheet.  Through the pushing and shoving, they said to meet at the club in an hour, where they could talk without the need to raise their voice.

Diane could not make it to the club that night, how could she?  She was too inspired to write, too inspired to catalogue what she had seen in Jackson Hall.  Back in the apartment, she wore her hand out writing incoherently about the meeting, simply trying to get it all out.  She wished that she had an address for John, to tell him of the great news, and she grew anxious of his sad unawareness on the other side of the world.  Diane wrote a letter out, being more delicate with her words, and she would send it to John once she knew where he was.  After the fourth draft, it read:

Dear John,

You do not need to worry about leaving me here alone, I am grateful for the space to work.  I trust that you are keeping yourself safe, and ready for what awaits you in Petrograd.  You must remember to note down everything that you see.  I have taken on the translation for Ernest Baldwin, which will keep me fed and occupied until your return, but there are more compelling things starting to happen. I have felt a sudden surge of inspiration thanks to the party that you helped to create.  Yes, it is a party now.  City Hall granted with legality what you have been working towards, and it has established the party as a true possibility for change.  It has brought together the close relative organisations, gluing in harmony the fringes to envision our dream of a socialist community.  You should have seen the amount of people in the hall.  There are now plans to enter for the next election, with New York being a certain win, and Franklin and Janey are working on the manifesto themselves.  They could really do with your skill, and the support that you will bring back from Russia.  I am so eager to see the expression on your face when we see each other next.

Sometimes love is the right word,

Diane.

P.S. Don’t forget the seeds for Patricia.

Diane’s surge of energy carried on for the next week, and she was finally able to get going with the translation.  It was mathematical, and she chipped away at the manuscript sentence by sentence, page by page, taking breaks occasionally to eat, or to visit Patricia, who was the perfect procrastinating partner with her chatter on flowers, and her gossip on the other tenants in the building.  Diane struggled to return back to her own writing, but was happy enough doing the translation.  She walked down to the club every other night, unable to tolerate Janey and Franklin for too long, their bickering and aloof statements were constant and irritating.  Although, as the weeks passed, she saw them as friends, and when they popped round to the apartment, she was glad and welcome to be relieved of the translation.  Whenever she got stuck with the work, Diane would take long walks in Central Park, and witness something that would send her home to write something of her own, but then the words would not come, forcing her back to the French manuscript.  If the apartment ever closed in on her, she carried all of her gear to the library, and worked in silence there, growing fonder of the train and its mechanisms.  Once, when on her way home, she bumped into Anthony Patch who was on his way to a party, but it was a ‘boys night,’ so she could not come.  It was in her second month living alone in New York when Mr. Baldwin left a message for her at Patricia’s telephone.
“He wants to see me, tonight?” Diane asked, in Patricia’s apartment.
“Yes, he can only do tonight,” Patricia said.  “He was very vague.  He said something about the translation and about John.  I’m sorry, I cannot stand telephones, my ears are not the right shape for them.”
“No, it’s fine.  I better go if it’s about John.”
“You be careful now.  A married man having a meeting with an employee in his apartment.  It wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago; I tell you that.”
“Don’t worry about me.  I am as resourceful as John is.”

The last month had hardened Diane, and she was at ease cutting around the city, knowing the streets, and able to recommend a place to eat for a newcomer, but she was cautious of meeting with Mr Baldwin.  She was well aware of his intentions and questioned how far he would push himself if she rejected him, and only agreed to the date to get an update on John’s whereabouts.  Diane called the papers office and was told by the receptionist the address of Mr Baldwins luxury Chelsea apartment.  She dreaded the evenings arrival, and that meant that it came to her quicker, exiting the apartment with her shoulder bag of writing, attempting to keep a strong mind. Chelsea was walking distance from John’s apartment, and Mr Baldwins building was double the size of John’s, with golden revolving doors, and a man to open them.  Diane was embarrassed by the knowing smile the doorman gave her and embarrassed again when seeing Mr Baldwin waiting in the lobby for her.  He escorted Diane into the cramped elevator, not saying much, waiting until he could speak away from prying eyes.  Mr Baldwin’s apartment had the appearance of a lodging that was seldom lived in.  It spanned over two floors, with large open rooms, and matching windows that looked out onto the city.  The front door opened to a hallway, that led to a living area with a soft ugly furniture surrounded by abrasive ugly paintings.  Diane took a seat, and Mr Baldwin made the two of them a drink.

“I am sorry about the short notice,” Mr. Baldwin said, passing Diane a whiskey.  “This is the only time that the place is free, and I am a very busy man these days.”
“You do not have to explain yourself to me,” Diane said, as Mr Baldwin took a seat rather close to her. “We need to talk about the progress of the translation.”
“Yes, how goes it?”
“Good.  I am working through it at a steady pace, but the task is as expected.  It will be near the end of the year by the time it has finished.”
“That is fine.  As long as progress is being made, and you can let me know anytime that you require an extra advance, or anything at all.”
“Thank you.  I do not live an extravagant lifestyle, and the five thousand is suiting me well.  Please, tell me the news of John, I have a letter that I would like to send him.”
“Well, he made it to Petrograd early, and we have an address for him now that I will give you before you leave.”
“What of his writing?  I have not seen anything published by him in the paper.”
“Yes, well, what he has been sending us is not exactly what we were after.  He’s painting rather a grim, hopeless image of what’s going on out there.”
“He’s reporting the truth.”
“His truth, yes.  That’s why we pushed him along into Russia, so that he can get on with his own project, then get back to New York where his writing is more useful.”
“He’ll be home earlier then?”
“He should be.  I am sure you are excited for him to return, have you been so lonely in the last month?”
“Not so much.”
“I have been told in the past that I am a wonderful cure for loneliness.”
“I am not lonely, and you are married, Mr. Baldwin.”
“I am, but you are not.” Mr. Baldwin leaned into Diane over his tie, and his fitted shirt, right under her breath.  Diane leaped backward, dropping her glass onto the floor, smashing it to pieces, the tiny crystals scattering on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Diane asked.  “I have not come here for that.”
“Then why are you here girl?”
“This is a professional liaison, and nothing more.”
“You disappoint me.  If you were to be more willing, then perhaps I would consider some of your work for the paper, my dear.”
“How about you consider it on the quality of the work, Mr. Baldwin?” Diane was stood up before him, the silhouette of the city behind her.  “Right now.  You will read the story in my bag, or I will tell a great number of people in this city, and John, about your behaviour.”
“Have you gone insane?”
“This is no bluff or flight of fancy.  Read it, you might be surprised.” Mr. Baldwin was smirking.
“Fine,” he said.  “Hand it over.”

Diane pulled the paper out quickly, so that Mr. Baldwin could not approach her from behind, then gave it to him.  He read it with a similar grunt as before, except he took care in his inspection this time, and did not speak until he had been over it twice.  “Despite this tainted situation, it is an intriguing piece of work, did you definitely write it yourself?” Mr. Baldwin asked.
“Every word,” Diane said.
“And it is about John.  Remarkable.  A work of journalism on a journalist.  It has so much personality and character, no doubt mostly because of John’s activities within the text, instead of the writing.”
“It’s both.  I wrote it without his knowledge, whilst we were on a trip to Cape Cod.  It’s all his interactions with the union workers, the friends we made there, how are relationship functions when he is working.”
“Very good.  It needs a tough edit, but it is certainly publishable.”
“Fine, I trust to leave it with you, and I will take the minimum payment if it’s in print prior to John’s return.”
“Deal, but he will see the piece eventually, you know that?”
“I do, and I will have to deal with that.  Now, give me his address so that I can leave.” Diane left in haste, adrenaline coursing through her veins, as she opted for the stairs instead of the lift, jumping around the corners, and then back at the apartment she enveloped the letter the John, ready for it to be sent the following day.

The article on John was published in the paper two weeks later, without too much of a harsh edit, and Diane had trouble not showing her pride around town.  She could finally compete in conversations with Franklin and Janey, and the side characters at the club began to listen to her when she spoke.  It was a simple piece of writing, but a new angle for the paper, showing a humanistic element to an established and controversial journalist.  Mr Baldwin left several messages for Diane, asking her to join him for dinner to congratulate her, all of which Diane ignored, continuing to go on with the translation.  She had high peaks, and fast descents with the work, stressing about what John would think about the writing on him, how public it was, and she neglected her practice more frequently as she waited for John to return.  Diane’s nights at the club grew longer, and she missed party meetings when she was too hungover to leave the apartment.  Somewhat desperately, she was chasing the thrill of her rendezvous with Mr Baldwin, and the attention from the article, instead of getting into the pragmatics of the translation.  It was slow progress, and slowly she expanded her social circles further into the city, opting for longer walks, and less time spent at the typewriter.  Diane would forget about John’s existence for days, and then only think of him for days also, thrashing herself around the apartment seeing the same page of the manuscript, the same walls, the same meals.  It was a cosmic revelation when John came back to New York one day, a crash landing without any warning.

Diane had been on pointless errands for most of the morning, and when feeling hungry, headed back to the apartment.  She opened the door to see John at the desk that had become hers.  He was reading her translation and fumbled his way to a standing position when he heard the door open.
“You’re back,” Diane said, noticing the weight John had lost, especially in his formerly wide shoulders.
“I’m back,” John said.
“Did you get my letter?”
“I did.”
“Did you read my piece in the paper?”
“I did.”
“Look.  I’m sorry, I should have told you that I was writing about you.  It’s unethical really, I should have waited for your permission.”
“You don’t have to apologise, Diane.  It’s good work, and it made me want to come home and see you.”
“Well, fine then.  This is not exactly how I imagined this moment would be.  I’ve been doing quite well on my own and seeing you here it is almost like you are an interruption.  I imagine you felt the same when I first came to New York.”
“Would you like me to leave?”
“No, of course not.  I would like you to give me a hug.” John grinned and they met in the middle of the apartment to embrace.
“Diane, you are not going to believe this,” John said.
“What is it?”
“I have not brought back any seeds for Patricia.”  Diane held onto John tighter, able to get her arms around him much further than she ever could before.

Franz and Loura

I wish that I was Franz.  He is tall and has an angular face and a lean body and a haircut that is synchronised with the shape of his head.  His arms reflect those of a working man, broad and capable.  He spends time with his grandmother and has friends who respect him, and a wife who loves him.  Loura.  I wish that I was married to Loura.  She has a beautiful face that is plain.  She wears the same clothes every day and you cannot tell from her voice where she is from.  When she kisses Franz, it is always a surprise.  It is like an explosion across a river where the vibrations are felt seconds later.  Franz and Loura turn heads.  They are adored by the elder statesmen of their family and placed upon a pedestal by their niece and nephews.  At Christmas, during annoying parlour games, Franz and Loura are an unbeatable couple.  People are not jealous of them.  Their home is in the hills and they live off the land, sowing fields and collecting chicken eggs.  When Loura’s sister was sick, Franz invited her to live with them until she got better.  They are planning to have children soon.  Loura’s pregnancy will be a graceful one, and their children will not scream in public.

Franz is the kind of man who hugs a friend when their father dies.  He gives good advice and lets other people get on with their business.  In the morning he stretches, then makes a coffee for his wife.  He does not drink coffee.  His one anxiety is a fox coming to kill his chickens in the night.  He does not meditate but is happy to sit doing nothing.  Sometimes he loses track of time, and Loura has to remind him of an appointment he has made.  Since meeting Loura, Franz has not been late for anything.  They met in a beer garden.  It was a warm spring day when Franz accidentally poured his beer over Loura.  She took the glass from him and finished the drink.  They share an ability to never be drunk.  Loura will never be bored of him, but she can see that his skin is beginning to itch, and so her encouragement is becoming persistent.  You need to make the home proper, by abandoning it, she says in a language that only the two of them understand.

It is winter and I am watching them, and my feet are cold.  I am not sure they know of my existence, nor their existence.  Franz and Loura live amongst the clouds, up and away from the village in a wooden house that hangs off the edge of a severe incline.  A path leads you there.  They take every precaution to make sure their home never burns down, and Loura keeps the path from getting too overgrown with weeds.  Franz tells her to let the weeds grow.  He is going away soon.  I cannot remember the name of their closest neighbour, but he is a friend to them.  He gives them flour from his flourmill.  It is operated by a water mill, that is attached to open funnels that trickle along the weedy path.  They have no worries that soiled water will contaminate the flour.  I am worried for them.  The parasites are so small, and the grains so big.  Loura’s sister has died and she is grieving quietly.  Franz read a poem at the funeral service that was well-received by all.  The church pastor tells them they are welcome into his castle anytime for an unloading of secrets.  Franz is grateful.

The mourning of Loura’s sister has extended on longer than expected.  She was not the favourite sister.  People in the village must be upset because of Loura’s sadness.  She is not talking as much as usual and has stopped visiting the flourmill.  Franz delays his exit, and Loura falls pregnant.  The child is born at home, and the grief within the walls fades away.  I have little interest in their children.  They have their second and third almost immediately after.  Franz comes to me with a broken watch, and I cannot fix it.  His trip is scheduled soon, and it is set in stone.  Before leaving he visits the church pastor.  He goes in the night without saying goodbye.

This is my chance.  I have kept my eye on this marriage for a long time.  The problem I am having has something to do with my own sentience.  If I can just achieve a state of mind where I am aware of the breath leaving my mouth, I can reach the heights of Franz and Loura.  The man of the house will return with a treasure to place on the mantlepiece of a burned down home.  It will make him stronger.  In his absence, Loura has taken to tending to the farm alone.  The children have grown so much and are able to help her.  She rarely thinks of her sister.  Her mind is occupied with Franz’s deep-sea adventures on the other side of the world.  His wetsuit is as tight as her apron, in the realm of dreams.  I want to see him dive eternally, an endless mirror falling into the abyss.  The town misses him too.  He is the glue that brings his friends together, and their conversation now moves slowly in the biergarten.  The pastor has taken to drinking with them, even passing on the wine.

Be honest, the watch will not fix itself.  One hand, then the other.  With concentration, perhaps I can make the clock turn backwards.  Loura has received a letter from a tropic address, signed by Franz.  She is not convinced it is from him, there are inconsistencies in his prose.  The camera keeps cutting away from the main themes.  His handwriting looks under duress, like bullets are whizzing past the fat that rests between his index finger and his thumb, grazing whips of a red along his now tanned skin.  Loura reminds herself of the blue sky, and I remind myself of the truth.  Loura is not her name, but simply the one I gave her.  She is an actor, a poser, an evaporating oil in a scorching hot pan.  Franz does not know.  I should be the one to tell him.  The train station would be a tremendous ambush location.  Or a leap from the trees as he races down the dirt road on his bike.

I am edging closer.  Franz is searching deep under the sea for something.  To complete a contract, to capture a lost piece of history.  I wish I had the bravery for that.  My cowardice has no boundaries.  Loura receives a visit from the pastor, and she hates the way that his nose moves when he talks.  It crinkles from side to side, like puppet strings yanking at the corners of his mouth.  He is dripping saliva onto their lovely wooden kitchen floor.  Loura is polite and offers the pastor more tea.  He refuses but asks if he may use the bathroom.  More fluid on the bathroom floor then.  Loura and I share a thought together, unbeknownst to the two of us, a thought of the pastor slowly decaying from an illness caused by an empty church.  Franz is the only true believer.  I cannot commit myself to a belief right now.  The pastor leaves a trail of slime behind him as he goes.

Communication had a simple life in those months.  The days hardly passed one another, without bookends every twenty-four hours.  I retreated.  Franz’s bike assaulted the dust on the road when he returned.  He appears at the end of the path, and Loura hears his feet on the ground.  She leaped on him when he got to the house, knocking them both to the grassy hill, with an all-time surprise embrace.  They elongated their kiss, until Franz, out of breath and flushed, asked Loura where the kids were.  Inside, she said.  One of the three children was not present in the dining room, but that didn’t seem to bother them.  Franz showed them the treasure.  An invaluable golden bear was in his hands, then an invaluable golden bear was on the table.  It is ugly and gold.  I hope it is not flammable.  Loura cannot let go of Franz.  She is putting her arms into any gap that she can find.

The fictional Loura continues to disguise herself well.  Franz still thinks that she is real.  He goes back to work on the farm, and he sees his friends and the pastor.  There is no change inside him.  Both Franz and Loura have not realised that one of their children is missing.  They are preoccupied with the position of the golden bear in the house.  It is moved to above the fireplace.  It is moved to the foot of their bed.  It is moved to the window above the sink.  The pastor requests that the golden bear be donated to the church, and Loura denies that request before Franz can agree to it.  It is quite an embarrassing few minutes.  There is some tension when Franz comes back to me to collect his watch.  I have forgotten all about it.  It is made even stranger by the fact that he cannot see me and that I am not there.  He is standing in the shop mumbling to himself, shaking the watch in his hand.  This is the first time I have seen him weak, but I cannot see him either.  I am worried about my ability to save him from the great pretender that is his wife.  The conflict is dwindling because she is a mighty fine actor.  Five stars across the board in that department.  There must be a way to buy petrol without blood in my veins.

In the village a summer festival is ongoing.  Franz and Loura are not in attendance, instead they are trying to catch raindrops from the clouds as they stand on their roof.  The festival has joy and justice for anyone who brought an overcooked cake.  Loura’s pastries are always baked to perfection, she could have at least rolled one down the path to the buffet table.  For the first time in a while, I remembered that I cannot taste food.  I am mentally pouring salt down my throat.  Nothing.  The festival lasts for nine days and Franz and Loura are on their roof for the entirety of the nine days.  They have collected enough water to boil a rain soup.  During their hand waving to the god’s escapades, another one of their children has wandered off, presumably to join their sibling in a world with fewer insecurities.  The man from the flourmill is coming down the path.  He is knocking on the door.  He is welcomed inside but is dismissed quickly when Franz mistakes him for a charity worker.

Months that morph into years pass with only one child left in the house.  The golden bear has been moved around again, and can often be found in the large front pocket of Loura’s apron.  Franz cannot lift anything up anymore.  He has completely lost the skill of picking up.  His arms tense up and he drops whatever item he was trying to carry.  There are shards of material on the floor of the house.  I have given up watch fixing, and my aspiration to have a beating heart.  All I need now is fuel, oxygen, and heat.  Surely science works for the non-conscious as well.  The final child is leaving, except this one says goodbye.  They even have a farewell party.

The argument has been presented, now for poetry.  Franz and Loura have not seen a single soul for an eternity.  They are wrapped in tin foil on their wooden kitchen floor, with the golden bear looking over them.  Franz has cuts on his cheekbones, and Loura has lost half of her bodyweight.  The pastor was the last person to speak to them.  He told Loura of Franz’ confession, the lurid confess of all-knowing.  Franz knows that Loura’s face is plastic, that she sits across from him shaking because she was put there by a painter, or a film director, or a writer.  He has always known.  Loura’s satisfaction with her station is gratifying to him.  She kisses him on the cheek, and he was ready, and he flinched.  Franz reaches for the box of matches.  My banging on the window is futile.  You cannot hear when there is no sound.  Loura looks away from Franz towards the mantlepiece and sees the dripping yellow of the melting golden bear.

 

Florence in January

‘No one cares if you like the place, or hate it, or why.  You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species, which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree.’ – Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937)

The people are still here.  Of-course they are.  Even the wet and cold cannot keep the people away.  Are there more Americans than Italians here?  Or are they just louder?  I am surprised to see a subcategory of the American tourist, one different from the bootcut jeans, blonde, slightly overweight group of young women finding their true selves in Europe.  This subcategory falls somewhere between bro, jock and prep school, and they not all strictly male, though mostly.  They are dressed shockingly well and appear to be in town for the beer rather than the culture, which in an American is very odd to see.  I am a hypocrite.  The bells are ringing at 18:40 for some reason, and I am on my second glass of wine.  On the way to the apartment from the train station, I passed through the square where the great black and white cathedral complex sits.  It is a three-dimensional chessboard, and a daunting monolith both night and day.  Whilst straining my neck gazing up at the chunks of dome and rot on white, I contemplated when climate change would take it.  It was a blessing to get this out of the way whilst in motion, rushing past remarkable human achievement to make the check-in time.  The greyness of the sky made the bell tower incredibly ominous in its peering over the amateur photographers beneath it, sickened by the queue waiting to get inside its stomach.  I imagine whatever is inside is worth queuing hours for, but there was no chance I was doing that.  The wine is not great, and I picked it up from tiny supermarket on one of the narrow streets that sits below Piazza del Duomo, and making my way to the apartment I scouted for somewhere to get a pizza later on.  I am in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

The apartment is pleasant enough in its design, with white walls and oak furniture.  It is in the shape of a fork – the left prong a narrow hallway to a square kitchen, the middle prong a small bathroom, and the right prong a spacey bedroom.  The window in the kitchen is at an angle whereby the inside of the apartments across the way are fully visible, which is unsettling rather than alluring.  It is clearly a place for a couple and not a single man.  The wine really is not great, I think I may abandon it, close my laptop, and go for dinner.

I walked to one of the restaurants I noted as a possibility earlier.  It was a cramped place that had no speciality, but it was quiet, affordable and had a welcoming décor.  In my hand I carried The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, which is the ultimate cliché given what I’m writing, but my ego is not too large to not know that very few people deeply inspect the title of the book that you are reading, nor am I under any pretentions that the general reader is aware of the Everest of travel fiction.  The most striking thing about the book is the description Byron puts into everything he sees, with such detail and poetry, however he is documenting the middle east in the 1930s, not a honeypot in the twenty-first century where Assassins Creed and Instagram exists.  There is a sadness to a world uncovered, touched all over, and violated, but it may allow for new avenues of description, such as selfie stick sellers or families wearing surgical masks because of the Coronavirus.  I cannot believe Microsoft Word is not spellchecking that.  It was not only Eastern Asian’s paranoid about air pollution, but whole groups of Europeans, and North Americans looking like they were heading into a seven-hour triple bypass.  When walking past them, fear of not having my own mask would arise for a fleeting moment, then I’d go back to stressing about my usual problems.  It became more concerning when I saw a sales assistant in the Gucci store wearing a branded mask.  Those stores are horrifying enough already.

In the restaurant I was surrounded by some interesting diners.  Ahead of me by the window was a group of four – two slobby bald men with two attractive blonde women ten years younger than them, eastern European, who gave me a few ‘pathetic young man on his own’ looks.  To the left of me was an American couple, the guy keeping his baseball cap on, asking odd questions like: ‘What’s in the Ravioli?’  I wished Tony Soprano was in the restaurant too.  When eating alone, you can drift away into other people’s conversations without them knowing, and usually you are irritated by what you hear.  Though even the thought of hearing back my own conversations makes me want to die.  The pizza was fine, got better as it got cooler, and its best quality was that it cut well under the knife into neat slices.  I made the common mistake, albeit a happy one, of choosing somewhere in an unfamiliar city that looked accommodating and was, more importantly, cheap.  Florence is certainly a town with somewhere to walk after dinner, and I walked a little drunk through a couple of the main centrepieces.  At night these grand attractions are surrounded by far fewer people, and still visible thanks to floodlights attached to the buildings opposite them.  An attractive couple was stood in front of the old chapel of Il Duomo in perfect composition, and I tried to take a photo of them, then they moved, and I awkwardly acted like I was taking a photo of something else.

Travelling alone is a peculiar experience.  I did not feel lonely, but I did crave the ability to share what I was doing with someone.  Having your own routine and schedule is relieving, and there is zero pressure of being bored or going somewhere disappointing.  With no-one to talk to, however, you find yourself thinking a lot, and I probably wrote this thing a thousand times over in my head, and probably massaged a few Wagyu cows of doubt to greater levels of muscle density too.  The Friday night after dinner walk was better than the Saturday night one, because I was more optimistic, there were fewer people and there were a couple of buskers that I spectated that were not terrible.  Food digested, I felt like sleeping.  A couple of doors down from the apartment is a night club, and at four am when it closed, I was woken up by the leaving customers.  In a daze I thought it was the morning and got up.  My watch told me it was four and for a moment I was genuinely lost somewhere.  I went back to sleep.

The beginning of a tour outside the window was my alarm clock around mid-morning.  People interrupting my peace again.  I had decided I would explore the town via bookstores, which in Florence creates a lovely circular route that touches the corners of the city centre.  Some of these bookstores were glorified stationary stores, and one of them was essentially an elderly guy’s office where it was possible that I had walked into an estate agent’s by mistake.  Nestled on an alleyway is a bookstore that has a large collection of English language books, and I picked up a book of Virginia Woolf essays and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  I was satisfied and ended my bookstore route.  The truth is I struggle to get excited about historic landmarks, or museums, and they are always a bit disappointing.  This led to a rather aimless session of wandering.

I have been thinking about why I decided to take this trip.  There does not need to be a reason, but I want one.  Perhaps it is because of the solo trip Greta Gerwig takes to Paris in Frances Ha.  It turns out to be a bit of a depressing catastrophe in the film, and my trip would probably end in the same fashion, at least emotionally, and what will I have learned?  The discovery of a new place is arbitrary if you take nothing away from it, whether that’s good food, an original photo, or whatever.  As of right now, it has solidified a few things in my mind, rather than create new ones.  It is like a twisted form of confirmation bias: yes, I am sad, yes, I am worried, yes, I think sightseeing is basically meaningless, yes, tourists are annoying, yes, pizza.  It could be because I wanted to write something like this, though really the inspiration only came when I got to Florence.  Keeping in constant transit to take your mind off things is a flawed hypothesis and it takes constant activity instead.  Walking around a town alone does not provide this, and on the second day I slipped into a deep melancholy.  Only the destinations of grandeur could save me, which meant going to Piazza Della Signoria, somewhere I frequented as it was a couple of roads down from the apartment.  The Palazzo Vecchio’s clean brownness is less disconcerting than the Duomo.  Its clock, an angel at the top of the tree, shows the wrong time.  At its foundations are a collection of sculptures, men and women alike locked together, statue of David-esque, and a freebie view at some of the heritage of the town.  To truly respect the artistry, I ate a sandwich sat below one, dodging photographers, and shifting my eyes from the square to the palace.  The focaccia and speck did not match with the soft cheese, but I have had lunch in worse places.

Geographical locations rarely let me down and the river in Florence is about the only thing I saw and thought: wow I am glad that I am looking at this.  Naturally, the infamous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is littered with people, but still remains pretty.  The river water is green, and the flow appears artificial, like they are pumping a limited supply of water in from the grassy banks.  It expands through many bridges and does manage to weed out some of the crowds, as the other side of the bridge has to be where the people in the know go, surely.  That’s the thing about Florence, there is no separation, no districts or areas that divide class or age and it is all close in together, which makes it difficult to find the best spots on first arrival.   Resisting the urge to throw myself off one of the bridges, I returned back to the apartment where I wrote most of this, hence the confusing tenses.  Fuck it.  Did David Foster Wallace care?  I mean he hung himself, but in his writing, what rules did he play by?  None of it matters.  There is this Vaccines song called No Hope on their second album Come of Age, and it’s a great tune about being in your early twenties, anxious about where your life is and where it’s going.  I like the song because it has the line ‘I find my life ever so moving,’ indicating a self-awareness of the self-pitying, I’m special my experience means something, that I think about and write about constantly.  It is this built-in romanticism of a chosen one mentality where the whole world is on your shoulders, when really it is not that deep.   I headed back out in the evening because I was thinking too much.  I had done some research on where to get the best pizza and settled on a place not far from the apartment.  It was a buzzier vibe than the restaurant the night before, and a much better pizza.  Eating it, I actually felt like I was enjoying something.

I had a second glass of beer because of my change in mood, and a queue began to form at the door to the restaurant.  A good sign, and a good time to leave, so I finished my drink with a couple of big gulps to free up a table.  It was raining somewhat heavily outside, and there was a deep puddle in the crevice between the path and the road.  My shoes were already filthy.  There is some cover where the market resides in the daytime, and at night it’s illuminated by the fluorescent sign of an H & M, a shop that gives me PTSD.  A presumably homeless painter was sat on a stool in front, taking shelter from the rain, leaning his canvas on a limestone pillar.  I watched him work for a while, then ventured back out into the rain.  These towns full of people continue to puzzle me.  I often wonder if normal people with normal jobs live in these towns.  There must be some – there are universities and offices.  I feel bad for those people.  The florid ideal of living in Florence would soon be crushed by the daunting realisation that the endless stream of tour guides never ends, and only increases year by year.  Florence is effectively a massive outdoor museum.  I did not get a feeling of real life in the town until my six am walk to the train station to leave back to France.  This is where I saw regular dog walkers, and people still faded from the night before.  Until then, it had been an insight into the world of taking a photo of your husband in front of old shit, and I had seen enough of it.  Take me away.

I have an answer as to why I took the trip: It was an exercise of progressing time, progressing moods.  Running scared rather than escaping.  I do not want the power to go back in time and change things, I want the power to go forward in time, to a point of non-dwelling.  What I have to remind myself is to make the time useful.

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1917 – Film Review

Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.   It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen.  The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.

It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer.  That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening.  Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth.  The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of.  And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land.  This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them.  Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.

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The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film.  It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting.  Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water.  It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches.  Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line.  Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie.  This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film.  In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious.  Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act.  Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.

Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers.  This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime.  Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring.  The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it.  George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor.  It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.

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The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness.  It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it.  The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger.  The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not.  Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.

Top Ten Films of 2019

I’ve been living in France since September, so I’ve seen both UK and France releases this year, which means that this list is properly dodgy, as there are films that would usually be in next year’s list (like Parasite, which doesn’t come out till February in the UK).  To not lose any in-between films, I’ve kept it to 2019 releases in either France or the United Kingdom.

Firstly, here is 20-11:

20. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)

19. Us (Jordan Peele)

18. The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard)

17. Midsommar (Ari Aster)

16. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

15. The Edge (Barney Douglas)

14. Ad Astra (James Gray)

13. Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson)

12. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

11. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

  1. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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A skateboarding documentary, which like all the best documentaries it’s not really about the main subject matter.  The skateboarding acts as an aesthetic and a backdrop to stories on troubled youth, race, and toxic masculinity in places forgotten by the American establishment.  Where the film becomes something special is a gentle reveal of how much the director plays a part in the lives of the people on screen, and his own battles to get where he is now, thinking about the friends that made him.

  1. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)

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This film is much higher on most people’s lists, and rightfully so, it is just about perfect.  I found love in other films from the year, however this is a masterful piece of work, even aside from the actual content of the movie.  It is a South Korean auteur picture that has managed to be marketed in the US, seen by huge audiences, which in itself is a hopeful thing.  The film is best seen without knowing a single thing about it, all you need to know is that you will be engrossed from start to finish.

  1. High Life (Claire Denis)

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Every year these lists are very personal, and the films that make it are usually ones that inspire me or shift my emotions in some way.  Claire Denis’ English language debut did both of those things, and it made me write THIS.

It is a space sex dungeon existential crisis orgasm and I fucking love it.

  1. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)

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The depth of this film is quite outstanding, telling the story of an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight in World War Two.  It asks questions about faith, resistance and protest without recognition, leading to a moving experience, and a mature ending.  Unsurprisingly it is ridiculously well shot, with wonderful Austrian countryside vistas, in a peaceful and mechanical setting.  Valerie Pachner as the left-behind wife Fani is one of my favourite performances of the year.

  1. Burning (Lee Chang – Dong)

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A transcendent work of fiction that works like a great novel does.  For a while it is a sort of love triangle movie, building to a stunning central scene, where the film changes completely to a noir-esque thriller.  You can take multiple interpretations from it, and I always enjoy it when an artform questions itself through technique, and metaphor, not being too concrete.  Steven Yeun’s performance as a massive smarmy bastard is great fun, amongst a film with endless meaning.

  1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

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It is amazing that Scorsese even got this made, and it shows that he is still one of the greats, managing to pull a story this vast together.  Robert De Niro carries the film right through to the bitter end, the crushing phone call scene at the peak of it.  Joe Pesci’s performance is remarkable considering he’s hardly worked for twenty years, finding a character presentation in this film that is higher than being a simple gangster tough guy.   The film winds down to a profoundly sad ending, where Scorsese offers an idea about dying without epiphany – creating all this and it means nothing!

  1. Varda by Agnes (Agnes Varda)

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As a filmmaker and a human being Agnes Varda has given the world so much, and in this documentary, she reminds you of it all step by step.  She is giving lectures on her work, cutting to parts of her filmography, telling stories about her process.  The level of genius she has produced for the image and moving image is hard to comprehend, when you view the variety and sheer amount of work that she has done.  Every legendary artist should do this before they die.

  1. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

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Again, perhaps another perfect movie.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson disappear into these roles, moulding themselves around an excellent script that balances both sides of the argument in an honest way.  Johannson’s monologue on her initial meeting with divorce lawyer Laura Dern and Adam Driver singing ‘Being Alive’ are two of my favourite scenes of the year.

Full review HERE.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

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I’ve never quite a cinema experience like this, for a multitude of reasons, including my mental state and the person I was with.  Barry Jenkins is a sublime filmmaker, and this is a beautiful, heartbreaking adaptation of a James Baldwin novel that captures the essence of Baldwin’s writing.  The soundtrack from Nicholas Brittle is one of my favourites of all time, and I can’t listen to ‘agape’ without breaking down.  When the credits rolled, I was audibly blubbering.

One of the few things that I have written that isn’t actually bad HERE.

  1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

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This is a special film.  An entrancing rhythmic symphony of storytelling.  A tactile, physical, romantic, loving experience.  Meta, and intelligent in its nods to the original author of the book.  Gerwig imagines the story in a baseline gorgeous way, then adds subtilties that raise it to interesting high art.  I was falling off the Timothee Chalamet bandwagon slightly, but after this film, I am firmly back on it, some of the things he does with his face! And Saoirse Ronan as well is unbelievably adorable, and relatable in a role that she brings so much life to.  It is one of those films that I did not want to end, and I will be watching it continuously in the foreseeable future.

Wrote something about the film HERE.

Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.

 

 

 

 

The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too).