The Demi-Paradise (UK 1943)

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When wearing an Astrakhan hat was meant to signify a good thing

The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.

Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).

Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.

The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.

Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).

The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.

Peterloo (UK 2018)

Actions not words

Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.

Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.

In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.

There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.

Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.

Lust for Gold (US 1949)

This odd film offered Ida Lupino a lead role that paid the bills as she was preparing projects for her new production company now that her Warner Bros. contract work was completed. Her new husband Collier Young was a producer at Columbia and according to Lupino’s biographer William Donati she hoped that by choosing a Columbia script she would at least see Collier on a regular basis. However, Lust for Gold was a location shoot in Arizona for much of the time. Lust for Gold, as the title baldly suggests, is a story about a real life mystery – a ‘lost gold mine’ on Superstition Mountain in Arizona – and the people who will go to any lengths to find it. In fact, this is arguably the most often quoted ‘lost treasure’ story in the Americas with many references in American popular culture and the development of what is now a mythical story based on ‘real’ events.

Julie (Ida Lupino) meets a cleaned up Jakob Walz (Glenn Ford)

The script embraces the mythological/real basis of the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Mine’ by setting the story in the present and revealing the original events as a Western narrative via a prolonged flashback. In the present, ‘Barry Storm’ (the pen name of the writer of a 1945 book about the myth) travels to the mountain, claiming he is a descendant of the original ‘Dutchman’, the German migrant Jakob Walz. Storm is involved in a shooting on the mountain and encounters the local sheriff and his men. With what the sheriff tells him and further research in newspaper archives of the 1880s and talking to elderly locals he pieces together a possible scenario – which leads into the flashback with Glenn Ford, Columbia’s go-to leading man for this kind of film. He plays Walz who finds the original mine and then hits town where Ida Lupino is Julia Thomas, from a German family in Milwaukee and who runs a small bakery shop. Julia is married to the spineless Pete (Gig Young) but she sees an opportunity to seduce Jakob and find the gold for herself. It’s a risky business as the whole town knows about the find. What follows is a classic Western melodrama which ends in disaster and takes us back to the present where Barry Storm becomes involved in a typical Hollywood ‘resolution’ that maintains the integrity of the ‘lost gold’.

Julie and her husband (Gig Young) on Superstition Mountain

I need to admit that at times this is very serviceable entertainment. At other times it threatened to lose my interest. The film was originally intended to be directed by the highly experienced director George Marshall but when he was not available it was passed to S. Sylvan Simon who was arguably better known for comedies. It turned out to be Simon’s last film as director as he died suddenly aged just 41 a couple of years later. Ida Lupino gives a committed performance as usual and the other leads are fine. Glenn Ford with beard and unruly hair certainly looks different and his character is vicious, even by the standards of later Westerns. Several of the minor players are of interest, including Jay Silverheels as a sheriff’s deputy in the contemporary-set scenes. For children of my generation he was ‘Tonto’ in The Lone Ranger series on TV and, as the sheriff, Paul Ford is fondly remembered as the commanding officer trying to keep Sgt. Bilko in check in the Bilko/Phil Silvers TV series in the 1950s.

Ford and Lupino with (I presume) director S. Sylvan Simon

For Ida Lupino this was one of the films she worked on with Archie Stout as cinematographer. Stout, like other crew members was impressed by the way Ida stayed out on location in the blazing sun in order to see how the production functioned rather than heading back to town as soon as her scenes were completed. Stout would become one of her own loyal crew members happy to tell anyone who asked that Ida Lupino knew more about angles and lighting than most of the directors he worked with. Certainly, the experience on Lust for Gold must have been very useful when The Filmakers were shooting on location in similar terrain for The Hitch-Hiker in 1953.

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, Japan 2013)

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Happy families

If I’d thought about it at the time, the idea that the child I’d been bringing up for the past six years was not actually ‘mine’ would have been a ‘worst nightmare’. That’s the premise of Kore-eda’s quite brilliant Like Father, Like Son. Add to that the theme of alienation caused by corporate culture, and you have a film that’s not only intellectually fascinating but grips the viewer as the consequences unfold.

To add to the melodramatic mix, as the hospitals tell the parents it’s usual to swap the children, Kore-eda makes the other family in many ways the direct opposite of the one we meet first. Lily Frank’s apparently feckless, smalltime shopkeeper is in total contrast to Fukuyama Masaharu’s organisation man, Ryoto (which in Japan requires you give your soul, though this is tempered by a sympathetic boss later in the film). I found the narrative appalling in the sense I was appalled by Ryoto’s behaviour and found myself squirming as much as I would watching a brilliantly made thriller.

In common with all the films I’ve seen by Kore-eda, he casts a compassionate eye so that even Ryoto isn’t simply a villain. Unlike, say, in Hollywood cinema, the director doesn’t require a good-evil opposition and his melodramas are thus infused with a humanity rather than the need to take sides. However his films are indisputably melodrama, which is a genre not a term of abuse. In an otherwise sympathetic review, Glenn Kenny makes a common mistake:

Every now and then, Kore-eda will overplay his representations a little bit; there’s a scene in which Ono’s character contemplates an escape from the torment of potentially trading the son she loves for a child she doesn’t know, biology or not; this takes place on a train, and as her thoughts grow darker, the shadows of the station that the train is pulling into throw her and the child actor into literal darkness. It’s a well-orchestrated effect that hinges on obvious.

For me the scene was absolutely brilliant as the change in lighting externalised Ryoto’s wife (Ono Machiko) anguish which her position in patriarchal society made it very difficult for her to verbalise.

The actors are brilliant, especially the children who Kore-eda has no peers in directing. The child playing Ryoto’s son, Ninomiya Keita, seems have preternaturally black eyes, which give him an alien presence perfectly in keeping with his position in the family.

Japanese culture seems to be so buttoned up that it makes the British seem to be as extravert as a Latin stereotype. However, the undercurrent of emotions that Kore-eda reveals in his films are, of course, as deeply human as any nation. His films unearth the psychological damage such a repressed culture can cause. Our Little Sister, the first Kore-eda film I watched, differs from the others as it bathes the viewer in the warmth of a matriarchal family that has little conflict. Shoplifters, too, focuses on a loving family but in the wider context of poverty and uncaring officialdom.

Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017)

The three central characters concerned with ‘disobedience’, (from left) Ronit (Rachel Weisz), Esti (Rachel McAdams} and David (Alessandro Nivola)

Disobedience is a wonderful film. It is quite a feat to make a film nearly two hours long that focuses on the intimate relationships of three childhood friends in later life plus the significant absence of a father and short sequences with assorted relatives and fellow members of a religious community. It is even more remarkable when English isn’t your first language and your film is set in a closed community that you don’t necessarily know much about. I’d read something about the film and the book it was based on, but as often happens these days, I immediately forgot who the director was. Part way through the film I thought this must be a female director who is handling these scenes so sensitively and I remembered that the film is an adaptation of a novel by Naomi Alderman. The end credits reminded me it was actually the Chilean auteur Sebastián Lelio in the middle of a run of three films made over two years. A Fantastic Woman arrived in the UK earlier this year and his English language remake of his own Gloria (2013) is released in the US next year.

David meets Ronit at the door

Time for a fag-break or an opportunity to talk in private?

Lelio approaches his task with two familiar strategies. One is a ‘don’t explain’ approach in which audiences are required to wait and attempt to puzzle out who is related to whom when Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka lands back in North London from New York. We work out quickly that she is the daughter of the Rabbi Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) who died during the opening sequence in his synagogue. But whose house are we now in and what do all these people mean to Ronit? Ronit has decided to live ‘outside’ this very specific Jewish community as a single woman working as an art photographer. Her single status and her professional life is a concern for her relatives. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Ronit is welcomed by Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who she has known since childhood and who was her father’s protegé. Eventually she will also meet Esti (Rachel McAdams) who was the third member of a childhood trio. At this point I feel I need to say that Esti looks younger than the other two. In one sense this isn’t a problem but the script insists that they were together as children and Weisz and Nivola are 8 and 6 years older than McAdams. Perhaps this is a commentary on the ‘maturity’ of characters rather than actual age? I only mention this because the age difference is palpable. It also makes it more difficult to work out how the characters are related.

Ronit finds three young scholars by her father’s modest grave

The second strategy is to use a shooting style that switches between long shots and close-ups. The film was shot mainly in streets of semi-detached houses in Hendon. The close-up style at times uses a very shallow field of focus so that characters move into and out of focus very quickly. There is a tension between the ‘openness’ of the long shots of streets and the confining atmosphere of the ‘closed’ community. The author of the original novel, Naomi Alderman writes in the Guardian about how she felt watching the adaptation of her novel about the frumkeit of Hendon, the very specific Orthodox Jewish community in North London. I hadn’t realised that there are important differences between this community and those of Golders Green and other parts of North London, especially Stamford Hill, the centre of Ultra Orthodox congregations. Ms Alderman suggests her novel, written during the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, was the first to focus on this kind of Jewish community since George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in 1876. She suggests that there have been others since. She wrote the novel while still ‘frum‘ or ‘observant’ of the teachings of her synagogue and writing it was part of the process of acknowledging her LGBT+ status. All of this is part of the film and when Esti and Ronit ‘escape’ the confines of the community, they find a hotel in Central London where they can rekindle the passion they had for each other as teenagers.

Ronit and Esti ‘escape’ to the West End. The alley-way here seems almost like an escape passage

The film’s narrative is kept almost completely within the community apart from the episode referenced above. This means that it isn’t a narrative about conflict between the community and the wider world but rather, as the title suggests, within the community itself, posing the question of the freedom to act and what pursuing or prohibiting that freedom means in terms of obedience/disobedience. There is a danger, perhaps, of treating the restraints of such a life style as ‘exotic’, but I think that is avoided in Lelio’s presentation of the story. My one disappointment with the film is that there are no subtitles for the Hebrew spoken in the synagogue. I’m assuming that there is also Yiddish spoken in the film (‘frum‘ as I understand derives from Yiddish?). I’d have liked to know more about what was being said but perhaps this ‘withholding’ of knowledge is part of Lelio’s approach as outlined above. I knew there was something odd about Esti’s hair, but I hadn’t realised that a sheitel or wig was required for a married woman in the community.

David in the synagogue where he is expected to succeed Rav. What does ‘disobedience’ mean to him?

The success of the film depends to a large extent on the performances of the three leads and the supporting cast, including Alan Corduner as Uncle Moshe. In some ways, the key role is Dovid and Alessandro Nivola manages to represent a character whose actions appear ambivalent. He is in the opening scene as his mentor makes his final speech about freedom and he is the one who makes crucial decisions about freedom at the end of the film. In between we can’t be absolutely sure what he is thinking or indeed feeling – but it is a struggle. It is the two women who seem able to be able to act, to some extent, on their emotional impulses. The film should be a melodrama but Lelio’s approach drains much of the potential for ‘excess’ in the colour and mise en scène – several scenes deal with the rituals of mourning and remembering the absent father figure. But there is music and the small group singing, especially of male voices, is very affecting.

Rachel Weisz was a producer on the film having optioned the novel. I’m not sure how much she was then involved as a producer. The crew list includes many ‘executive’ and ‘line’ producers and I suspect the major burden was borne by Frida Torresblanco of Braven Films. She is a significant figure in Hispanic films, now based in New York. I’m not generally pleased with the trend for filmmakers from smaller producing countries to move in anglophone productions but I have to admit that Sebastián Lelio is very successful with this venture and I look forward to Gloria Bell – I just hope we get it sooner rather than later.

PS. Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC1 about the history of the Jewish community in Leeds. This seemed to have a ‘Reformed’ rather than Orthodox practice but it was equally revealing about migration and a community within a community. A Very British History: The Jews of Leeds is on iPlayer for 29 days.

In Search of Frankenstein

This is an exhibition at the ‘impressions gallery’ in City Square, Bradford. It is alongside the Central Library and has a main entrance and also one through the library. This exhibition runs from October to January 5th 2019, excluding public holidays.

I took it in because I went to one of the two screenings organised by the Gallery at the Bradford Media Museum in conjunction with Picturehouse. This was a 35mm archive print from the museum of Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Roger Corman’s film adapted from the novel by Brian Aldiss. The earlier screening had been The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

The exhibition itself is a set of photographs by Chloe Dewe Mathews. She enjoyed a Artist Residency in the Alpine region where the famous novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) is mainly based.

“In Search of Frankenstein explores the environmental and social issues of our time through the themes of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’, written in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva.”

The exhibition includes photographs taken by Chloe Mathews of the Alpine environs. Impressive mountains, gorges, snow-covered landscapes and ice falls, dramatically reminding one of the the settings in Shelley’s powerful writing. There are also photographs inside a set of tunnels constructed by the Swiss Government as part of a programme to house and protect the population in the event of a nuclear war. And Chloe Mathews also visited the Bodleian library in Oxford which holds the original manuscript written by Mary Shelley. Photographs show both Mary’s writings and corrections/changes as well as brief suggestions by her soon-to-be husband Percy Bysshe Shelly.

“I wanted to put those two environments [mountains and bunkers] next door to one another …. to allow people to think about these beasts, these things that we have created and their effect on the landscape around us.” [Notes by Chloe Dewe Mathews].

The photographs and their juxtapositions are certainly effective. They also offers a reminder of how still relevant and protean is Mary Shelley’s creation. And the film screenings also remind one of how influential her early science fiction novel became and remains.

There is an aspect not referenced in the exhibition but which flows out of the juxtaposition of mountain and bunkers. The latter form a labyrinth under the mountains. Into the Labyrinth offers the traditional and mythic lairs for monsters; going right back to the founding example of the Minotaur and its labyrinth on Crete. This potent symbol is most often seen in cinema in the cycle of serial killer films where almost always the film climaxes in an underground construction and maze of tunnels or similar.

Mary Shelley’s creation is not really a serial killer, though Baron Frankenstein possibly is and certain is represented as one in many film versions, especially those produced by the Hammer Studio. In Frankenstein Unbound neither the Baron nor the monster are strictly serial killers, but the monster is frighteningly monstrous. And the climax of the film takes place in a labyrinth, following the novel set in the arctic wastes. This is the high point of the film and as the protagonist [John Hurt] hunts down the monster the sequence is both dramatic and visually stunning.

I suspect visiting the exhibition will stimulate people to consider other aspects of Shelley’s rich and complex work as well as those explicitly presented in the gallery. It is well worth a visit, especially as you can drop in before or after a film at the Media Museum, though there are no signs at the moment of any more Frankenstein works.

The Small World of Sammy Lee (UK, 1963)

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You can run

Ken Hughes’ biggest hit was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK, 1968) and he seems to have little in common, although he was roughly the same age, with the British ‘new wave’ directors such as Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger. A characteristic of the wave was its northern settings and despite being set in London The Small World of Sammy Lee shares its ‘down at heel’ gloom. Anthony Newley was using the film, he hoped, to prove he could be a serious actor and it was made whilst he was performing in his hit West End show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (Newley was a multi-talented superstar of the era). The film covers less than 24 hours of Sammy’s little world which he spends performing as a compere in a strip club whilst trying to find £300 to cover a gambling debt: at 7pm he will be beaten up.

Most of the film is set in Soho, an area Hughes apparently knew well and his script reeks of authenticity. There is certainly a smell about Soho at the time which is explicitly revealed in a climactic moment when Sammy tells his audience, consisting of seedy, middle aged men, the truth. It reminded me of Maureen O’ Hara’s ‘showgirl’ in Dance Girl Dance (US 1940) when she tells her audience ‘home truths’; if memory serves, Hughes isn’t quite as daring as Dorothy Arzner (yes, a woman director in classical Hollywood) who had O’Hara directly address the film’s audience. Soho was known for its sex clubs and, like Expresso Bongo, there is titillation to be had from women in underwear and tassels on their nipples. The women’s matter-of-factness is well conveyed, it is just a job they have to take, and Julia Foster, as the ‘naive northern lass’, portrays her humiliation with pathos. The club owner’s (Robert Stephens) rant about ‘any woman who takes her clothes off is a whore’ emphasises the misogyny of the time.

Hughes’ film not only condemns the treatment of women, Sammy himself is shown to be a pathetic male chasing thrills and ignoring consequences with his gambling. Newell plays him as a schmuck, not a bad guy as such but contemptible. The scene when he taps his brother (Warren Mitchell) for money is, this article suggests, a rare presentation of Jewish life in British film. When his brother berates his wife (Miriam Karlin) for spending money on clothes she looks at him with disdain and reminds him he married her because of her ‘looks and class’. She also has no truck with Sammy’s pleadings.

Despite the fact the ending of the film has a dab of sentiment, it doesn’t ameliorate the desperation of Sammy’s life.

The restored print (shown on Talking Pictures) looks great. Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who only died two years ago (aged 104 and also shot the classic Get Carter, UK, 1971), worked mostly in documentary and he brings out the grubbiness of Soho well. However the area’s multi-cultural vitality isn’t missed; an opening tracking shot along a row of restaurants shows the diversity of cuisine on offer. Sammy chats to Afro Caribbeans in passing as with anyone else. When desperately trying to buy drugs, Sammy asks a black jazz pianist (I haven’t been able to find who is playing the role) and is berated for his racist assumptions that a black person would necessarily have drugs; a progressive representation for its time and now.

Much of the footage of Sammy racing against time through the streets was obviously shot with no cordoning off as the public can be seen watching him which, paradoxically, adds to the authenticity of the film. Neither John Hill’s or Robert Murphy’s books on British cinema of the time mention the film and I think it should be placed alongside ‘new wave’ classics such as A Kind of Loving (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963).

Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belguim 2016)

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Death and life

Katell Quillévéré (who directed and co-wrote the script based on Maylis de Kerangal’s novel) is a talent new to me and I can’t wait to see more. Heal the Living focuses on a heart transplant: the first half of the film deals with the donor’s death and his family’s reaction; part two is about the recipient. The film manages to represent sublime moments in life: for the donor it is surfing (superbly photographed); for the recipient it is a piano concert played by a former lover. It also has a documentary eye on the actual heart surgery and, more importantly, the way doctors and nurses deal with the extreme emotions involved in the death of a child and the professional necessity of getting on with the job.

Of course such extremes rely on the actors to deliver the director’s vision and the assemble cast deliver with utmost skill. The putative star, Tahir Rahim (above right), has less screen time than some but manages to convey deep humanity from an apparently passive face; Quillévéré gives him time to explain why he loves goldfinches, to the be/amusement of a couple of nurses. The other ‘big name’, Emmanuelle Seigner, is similarly superb as the bereaved mother. However, all the cast hold there own with deeply committed performances.

It may appear a film about organ donation will be a ‘bit grim’, and there is much sadness represented in the film, but ultimately it is life affirming. Quillévéré takes time to dip into the lives of peripheral characters: a nurse has a sexual fantasy in a lift; a son hides his ‘dropping out’ from his mother. Her presentation of the bewilderment and joy of youth, when a boy meets a girl, is affectingly done and I’ve already mentioned the joie de vivre of the surfing sequence.

I read that the heart surgery scene is all special effects: they are as impressive as the film itself. Often cinema is an idea medium to spend some time in the ‘lives of others’. Heal the Living gives us time to understand the pain of the bereaved and at the same time understand the vitality of life.