Julie and Julia

First off, it’s not a food movie.  Meryl Streep doesn’t chop onions correctly, and Amy Adams debones her duck backwards — the culinary equivalent of the Merlot-hating Paul Giamatti drinking Bordeaux in the movie Sideways. The parallel stories do transmit the emotional pleasures of cooking for others.  But the movie is really the story of two marriages — one successful, and one that seems likely to become so..

Julia Child grew up in a conservative upper-middle-class family in southern California, but was unsuited by appearance and temperament for the life of an executive wife she was raised to be. She joined the OSS during WWII, and in 1946 she married Paul Child, an intelligence analyst.  Although they were married relatively late (she was 33, and Paul was 44), their marriage lasted nearly 50 years, until Paul’s death in 1994.

Paul joined the State Department after the war, and after a stint in China he was posted to Paris in 1949.  The four years they spent there were to change Julia’s life.  By1949, food abundance was returning to Paris, after years of privation. It is no surprise that an American woman who loved to eat would be so powerfully moved by French food and the French way of eating.  After taking cooking classes and running a cooking school for American expatriates, Julia ultimately found herself writing, with two French women, a French cookbook for American cooks.

We are given many details of Julia’s life — we meet her parents, her sister and her friends. And Paul Child is a fully developed, complex character. He encourages Julia to develop her hobby into a lifelong passion, which eventually becomes his passion too.  After Paul’s State Department career was over, the couple moved to Cambridge, where he remodeled the kitchen with cabinets and counters appropriate to Julia’s unusual height,* and special hanging boards forher kitchen pots and utensils. And Paul was the one who encouraged Julia to go on TV.    

Meryl Streep does not just mimic Julia’s accent and mannerisms — she IS Julia.  She carries off the scene where she learns of her sister’s pregnancy, mixing joy over her sister’s news with sorrow over her own childlessness, with a delicacy and subtlety few other actresses could match.  But the real sleeper is Stanley Tucci, who gives a wonderfully understated performance as Paul Child, a man who remains both bemused and enchanted by his unusual wife for nearly 50 years

The parallel story of Julie, a New Yorker who decides to spend a year cooking all 524 recipes in Ms. Child’s book and bloggng about it, is much less interesting, and not just because she’s in Queens instead of Paris.  In contrast to the richly detailed story of Julia, we learn little of Julie’s early life or the circumstances of her marriage. Her mother is just a voice on the telephone and her friendships appear superficial.  Julie’s husband, although supportive, considers the cooking project something Julie is doing for herself, not something that benefits both of them. He is also very concerned with “staying out of the blog,” which is probably why we learn so little about him.  As a result, their story is much less satisfying.

This is not a movie with a lot of action. And we noted that the audience for this film was mostly couples of a certain age. But it’s a wonderful and enjoyable movie about relationships — and, for a change, non-dysfunctional ones.

[*The real Julia Child was 6″2″.  Meryl Streep is about 6″ shorter than Child, which means that every short extra in Hollywood must have gotten a job in this picture. ]

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Equivocation (play)

post-Festival runs in Seattle (in the fall) and off-Broadway in NY (next spring), there’s a chance a production will be coming soon to a venue near you.  If it does appear, check it out — this complex and intellectually interesting drama is rare in modern theater.

The premise:  Robert Cecil, chief councillor to King James, asks Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot.  Shakespeare agrees, but wants to interview the conspirators to get a sense of what happened.  What he finds disturb him — there was no tunnel, no gunpowder, maybe even no plot. So Will faces a dilemma — does he write the truth, and likely lose his life, or give Cecil the story he asks for, portraying the plotters as a group of religious terrorists?

The heart of the play is the imagined relationship between Shakespeare and the other members of his acting company — a “cooperative venture” of five men who want to make money producing successful plays, but who want to make art too.  We get amusing glimpses of the acting company rehearsing plays that were “works in progress” at the time; much scenery is chewed. We also see Shakespeare interacting with his daughter Judith, who was her father’s London housekeeper and who, it is suggested, had more than a little to do with rescuing some of Shakespeare’s better efforts from the garbage.  

The play is a tour de force for the actors, each of whom play several roles.  You never know whether an actor is playing, for example, the actual Lord Cecil or the actor playing Lord Cecil in rehearsals for the “Gunpowder Plot” play.  It keeps the audience on its toes.

Towards the end of the play, Shakespeare visits Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest implicated in the plot, in prison.  Garnet had written an essay on “equivocation,” or the art of telling the truth in difficult circumstances.  If you are harboring the king against a foreign enemy, and a soldier of that power comes to your door and asks you to swear that the king is not hiding there, how do you respond?  The answer to that dilemma, said Garnet, was to answer the question that was really being asked — in this case, “Can we come in and kill the king?”  Garnet used that reasoning to refuse to discuss what he knew of the plot, which he had learned under the seal of the confessional. This type of reasoning, predictably, enraged the English authorities of Shakespeare’s day (Garnet was tortured and ultimately executed for treason), but it makes more sense in a post-Rwanda world.

Shakespeare resolves his dilemma by giving Cecil what he really wants — a play about bringing a regicide to justice that will please King James.  That play, of course, is Macbeth. Ironically, comments about equivocation in that play (most of which appear in the comedic porter’s scene) are usually cut as incomprehensible to a modern audience.

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3)

The playwright, Bill Cain, visited the Tower of London and was told that “no one was ever tortured for their religion in the Tower” — a nice piece of equivocation that he tries to rectify with this play.

Amusing historical footnote:  Several times in the play, King James refers to Cecil as “Beagle,” which I thought was an oblique reference to Karl Rove but apparently was historically accurate.  Apparently George W., Bush’s bullying nicknames have quite a historical pedigree.

I’ve Loved You So Long

Kristin Scott Thomas, an English actress, is best known to American audiences for her role in The English Patient.  But she also appears in a lot of French movies, including this one about a woman released from prison after serving a 15-year term for murder. Trying to restart her life, she goes to live with her younger sister, who barely knows her and is conflicted about her siblings’ sudden reappearance.  We gradually learn the facts of Thomas’ incarceration, which only makes it more difficult to empathize with her character. This is no story of easy redemption.  The movie sounds like a downer, but is consistently absorbing and, ultimately, life-affirming.

Waltz with Bashir

This Israeli film about a veteran coming to terms with his involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres is done as an animated film. The protagonist tries to deal with his ambiguous memories who tracks down other veterans.  He doesn’t really find out what happened — each participant has his own method of selective forgetfulness. One man’s final question — “When did we become the Nazis?” — has particular poignance, coming from someone who we learn is the child of Auschwitz survivors. It remains unanswered.   

The use of animation gives the filmmakers a way to depict the veterans’ nightmares as well as their experiences. But animation also gives the horror a sense of unreality — one the filmmaker remedies witha wrenching transition to actual footage near the end of the film. This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an interesting one, and, at just over 90 minutes, no longer than it needs to be.

Dark Victory

I was interested for some reason in this story of a young healthy woman who suddenly develops double vision. :-/ The woman, it turns out, has a brain tumor beyond the powers of 1930s medicine to correct.  The story of a young person with only one year to live has become such a cliche in the last 70 years that it’s hard to discern how groundbreaking this movie probably appeared when it was first released.  Bette Davis gives an edgy performance that keeps this unavoidably sentimental movie reasonably well-grounded.  But there’s real amusement value in the co-stars:  Humphrey Bogart, with a full head of hair, as an Irish stable hand, and Ronald Reagan, as a not-too-bright, but fundamentally decent playboy.

Sociological factoid: There’s a lot of smoking and drinking going on, as there always is in movies of this era, including some now-hilarious scenes of patients smoking in their hospital rooms.  I was particularly interested in the bar scenes, where the cocktails being knocked back were incredibly tiny, like the “Shirley Temples” we sometimes serve to children today.  I hadn’t realized we had supersized our cocktails along with our french fries.