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Watching Princesses With My Princess, Part 1: Princess Protection Program

9 Jan

I have a confession to make: I’m a trained film scholar. That sounds more dangerous that it is, though for a while it threatened to kill my enjoyment of movies. This blog was conceived as to keep those critical, scholarly muscles toned while I pursue a career elsewhere.

Last year I flexed those muscles preparing and presenting a paper on film versions of Snow White. As an academic, my training and most of my work has centered around Latin American film and video, particularly feminist work and images of Jews. But now that I am not affiliated with an academic institution and have no pressure to build a curriculum vitae, I write about what I think about. And, as a mom, I think a lot about princesses. (As a scientific experiment, I’ve posted my conference paper here. I have little intention of pursuing publication, but welcome all comments.)

I’ve decided to kick off 2014 with a periodic series of reviews and rumination about princess movies, both animated and live action.

Princess-Protection-ProgramEarlier this fall I watched the Disney Channel original move Princess Protection Program (2009) with Culture Sprout.  She loves princesses and she thinks Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are heavenly, so what better way to pass an easy 88 minutes with my kiddo?  I expected this Disney star vehicle to be a fluffy, silly movie that I’d probably keep half an eye on.  I won’t say I was riveted, but I will admit to being happily surprised at the film’s portrayal of teenage life and its deviation from the standard Disney princess format.

Princess Rosalinda Montoya (Demi Lovato) is rehearsing her coronation when her fictional country, Costa Luna (a sort of Latin American-Italian influenced place, in a Gomez Addams kind of way), is invaded by a despot from the island next door. She is rescued by the super-secret Princess Protection Program, an international agency that helps princesses imperiled by coups, crushes, and who knows what. Her rescuer, Joe Mason,  takes her to safety at his home in the bayou in Louisiana. He means to pass her off as his niece with the help of his daughter Carter (Selena Gomez).

Like most fairytales, this one is set in motion by the death of a parent, the king, and the arrival of a villain who wants to usurp power. The princess is doomed, if not cursed, to abandon her country in order to save her own life. She must rely on the kindness of strangers in a strange land. From here, the film actually exposes many tropes of fairy tales and pokes fun at our cultural obsession with royalty. You see, Rosie is ill-suited for a life without servants. She quickly learns that Carter will not help her get ready for bed, that she has to share a bedroom, and that not everyone sleeps in pink silk nightgowns. She must discover what it is like to live as a real person in a real world, including a high school full of nerds, jocks, and mean girls.

But there is another princess in this movie. The kind of princess Culture Sprout can relate to–an only daughter of  a devoted father. She also has to learn to share, and to trust.  Together Rosie and Carter have to face down the mean girls at high school, particularly Chelsea (Jamie Chung) whose sole preoccupation is with getting voted prom queen. Chelsea wants so badly to be prom queen that she’ll lie, cheat, and back stab her best friend. To beat her at her own game, Carter and Rosie enlist the help of all the wallflowers and the nerds. Shades of The Princess Diaries (Gary Marshall, 2001), to be sure, but not star-studded in the same way (you really can’t beat Julie Andrews as the Dowager Queen, unless you can get Maggie Smith.)

In the end the real princess teaches Carter that each girl has a princess within. That being a princess is not about gowns and jewels, but about being kind, caring, and thoughtful, and about taking care of the people who depend on you. The girls demonstrate pluck and courage, bringing down not just Chelsea (I’ll admit I cheered at her comeuppance) but also the general who invaded Costa Luna. In the process, they elevate the wallflowers and delight the nerds. The high school social order renovated and Rosie is successfully crowned queen of Costa Luna. (This is not a spoiler–it’s a Disney movie. It has to end this way.)

Of course, it was Disney-clean. These teens don’t smoke, drink, make out, or generally do anything more real than send text messages. But, just as there are stock good girl characters there are also stock mean girl characters. The movie is tailor-made for opening a discussion of the right and wrong way to treat people. And, while Disney princess movies (especially the older ones) generally annoy me, particularly when I enjoy them, this film tickled me. I’m not really sure why–maybe just because the feminist in me didn’t feel guilty about enjoying the film! Or maybe because if I had to define its genre, I couldn’t call it a fairytale. There is no magic, no curse, and no prince or fairy godmother to save the day. Rather, it combines the elements that make the best and most fun coming of age movies rise to the top–character growth, ingenuity, and pluck. While this isn’t quite Clueless, it also isn’t Little Mermaid (which I watched with Culture Sprout last week). Princess Rosalinda only lives happily ever after because she recognizes Carter as a friend, trusts her, and earns her respect. Together the girls prove that girls can do just about anything, or at least solve their own problems, big and small.


Joan Fontaine, Manderley and Me

17 Dec

Years ago my grandmother asked me if I had ever read Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca She looked truly stunned when I told her I had not read it. She then told me that she tried to read the book every year.  A few weeks later, I received an envelope from my grandmother with a copy of the book. Thus began for me a love affair with the book, and subsequently, the movie.

Like so many readers before me, Daphne du Maurier captivated me with the first eight words: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” The room around me faded away as I continued to read: “I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”  But, the narrator goes on to explain, she can never go back to Manderley again.

Published in 1938, Rebecca  has never gone out of print. Its opening lines cast it into the pantheon of Gothic novels.  Not surprisingly, Rebecca also captured the imagination of Alfred Hitchcock. His 1940 adaptation of du Maurier’s classic marked his Hollywood debut and launched Joan Fontaine into stardom (and perpetual rivalry with her sister, Olivia de Havilland). While the subject of film adaptation of classic/beloved/popular novels can start passionate debates, Hitchcock did du Maurier proud with his haunting rendition of her words, in many cases using her novel  verbatim.

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fonta...

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I heard of Ms. Fontaine’s death this morning, I couldn’t help but think of her gorgeous performance in Rebecca. Restrained but passionate emotions simmer just below the surface as she first suffers her gauche employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, and then imagines that she cannot compete with Rebecca, her husband’s first wife. Insecure and inexperienced, the second Mrs. de Winter–whose own name is never uttered–is impressionable. Rebecca’s devoted servant, Mrs. Danvers, becomes her nemesis, egging her on in her descent into despair.  Mrs. de Winter grows to believe that Max de Winter can never love her as he loved Rebecca, and that she is but a poor substitute for the lost love of his life.

Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers comes to life for me in the movie in a way that even eludes du Maurier. She moves so silently so that she suddenly appears in a room like a stealthy cat. (Rumor has it that Hitchcock actually had her on a board atop wheels so that she glided into rooms.) The chemistry between Fontaine and Anderson is truly terrifying.

Like my grandmother, I return to the novel Rebecca fairly regularly. I also return to the film. It surprises my students because it isn’t what they expect of Hitchcock, but it is PURE Hitchcock, unmistakable and unforgettable.  The novel bears rereading because it is so elegantly hewn. The film bears repeated viewings because Fontaine’s performance is so nuanced, Anderson’s is so psychotic, and Hitchcock beguiles. (Yes, Laurence Olivier is good, too.But, that’s beside the point.)

Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for her indelible performance of the most famous unnamed character in American cinema. Her second collaboration with Hitchcock–paired with Cary Grant in Suspicion–garnered her the Award in 1941. In that film she plays another impressionable young bride, this time one who believes her husband is trying to kill her. Her fear is palpable and, at times, bone-chilling.

Actors Gary Cooper and Joan de Havilland holdi...

Actors Gary Cooper and Joan de Havilland holding their Oscars at Academy Awards after party, 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what it was about Ms. Fontaine–she wasn’t the prettiest actress of the 1940s, and she wasn’t even the most prolific. But her performances, withstand the ravages of time. Mrs. de Winter cannot go back to Manderley, but thankfully I can go back again and again and remember an actress who took a character with no name and made her legendary.

Thank you, Joan Fontaine. And thank you, Mimi, for the introduction. Rest in Peace.

Bugs Bunny at the Symphony or Lessons from Looney Tunes

29 Jan

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and all the Warner Brothers characters played a large role in my childhood television consumption. I watched them with my brother, or later snuggled under a blanket by myself.  Elmer Fudd, Tweetie Bird, and Porky Pig dripped into our vernacular–“I’m hunting wabbits,” “I thought I taw a puddy tat. I did. I did see a puddy tat.”  “That’s all folks.”

Not until years later did I learn that the most of  “Saturday morning cartoons” we watched were, in fact, theatrical shorts originally produced to pair with feature films and to be shown in movie theaters. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced from 1930 to 1969, the earliest ones capitalizing on film’s exciting, new sound technology. While the animation is limited (at least by today’s standards), the sound design of these shorts is quite impressive. Just three short years after Al Jolson uttered the first synchronized speech and sang on screen, Bugs and friends were singing and dancing in perfect harmony and synchronization.

BB at Symph


A recent trip with Culture Sprout to Chicago’s Symphony Hall for “Warner Brother’s Presents Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” taught me so much more. A thoroughly entertaining concert by the Warner Brother’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Daugherty, “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” consists of  dozens of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, some screened alone, others screened with live accompaniment. In between , Mr. Daugherty talked about the history and music of the films.

Here’s what I found most fascinating:

Bob Clampett's Looney Tunes Porky Pig intro in...

Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes Porky Pig intro in 1938–1939 Produced by Leon Schlesinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • As the names imply, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies had music at their core. With Warner Bros. vast music library to draw on, the films included swing, jazz, and the popular music of their day as well. Daugherty noted that many viewers experienced classical music and opera for the first time while watching these films. Certainly I did.  From Rossini to Liszt, from Brahms to Strauss to Tchaikovsky, Bugs and friends covered them all.
  • It was a sound editor for these animated shorts who perfected the “click track,” a kind of audio-metronome that allows the orchestra to synchronize its performance to the film in the sound studio.
  • I think my favorite tidbit–and movie–was about “What’s Opera Doc?” (1957), which parodies Wagner’s Ring Cycle (all of them) and two other Wagnerian operas, all in 6 minutes or so. In it Elmer Fudd chases Bugs around, Fudd trying to “Kill the Wabbit.” Bugs distracts him as an alluring Brunhilda. It’s the standard Elmer Fudd-Bugs Bunny conflict, with the expected interruptions and resolution. Culture Sprout laughed at the shenanigans; I laughed at the collapsing of I don’t know how many hours of heavy, tragic opera into 6 hilarious minutes.

For as many times as we see Bugs Bunny in drag, we also see him in a chorus line, conducting an orchestra, and reenacting our favorite musicals and hit songs. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies largely followed a format similar to the American musical movie genre; they simply pared it down to the essentials of conflict and song, sped it up, and made us laugh.

It’s been a long time since I saw Tweetie Bird trick the Puddy Tat or Road Runner torture Wile E. Coyote. As a film scholar and mother, I  see them differently now. I suppose you could look at the role reversal in these duos as teaching children about using your wits to outsmart a bully. Or, just about sight gags. It was instructive to hear the audience laugh each time Puddy Tat’s gum bubble was burst by Tweetie Bird. Even though we knew it was coming, we laughed.

Of course, watching as a mother, in a city currently notorious for its annual murder count, I couldn’t help but think about the violence in these shorts. Violence creates the joke and in the end Wile E. Coyote and Puddy Tat live to entertain us another day. Culture Sprout did not recognize what she saw as violent–I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I am positive that these musical marvels have not taught her that violence is a reasonable way to deal with conflict.

Culture Sprout did sit on the edge of her seat for two hours and was visibly disappointed at intermission, until she realized that the show wasn’t over yet.  In one two-hour period, she met my favorite childhood cartoon characters and experienced more classical music and opera than I could have wittingly introduced her to.  And she loved it. Mr. Daugherty, with his evident and infectious love of music and movies, introduced her to concepts of silent cinema (okay, she already knew about that), cadence, click tracks, the fourth wall, and the joy of listening.  He made sure she recognizes the names Chuck Jones and Kurt Stalling. And his two principal violinists showed her that women can lead a symphony orchestra.

There’s a lot of fodder for cultural discussion in these films–like Bugs Bunny’s cross-dressing, Porky Pig’s romantic failures, the above-mentioned reversals of natural prey/predator laws, parody as an art form, racism, just to mention a few. That scholarship abounds, I assure you, and it is quite interesting. But, for a glorious two hours, we got to think about the music, the form, and the function–rather than the sub or meta texts.

If you have the chance to experience “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony,” run, don’t walk, to the box office. You’ll have no regrets.

As for me, I am still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to finally get that smug little bird.

Thats all folks

BOATLIFT–a film about the extraordinary heroism of ordinary men

14 Oct

Sometimes a film speaks for itself. Today Culture Husband sent me a link to such a film.

BOATLIFT (11:57 min)  tells the little-known story of the spontaneous outpouring of humanity and compassion that rescued 500,00 people from lower Manhattan on 9/11/01. It is an documentary about the human instinct to help each other, to come together as a community. Every boat captain who speaks tells us that as he saw the planes hit, the smoke rise, the towers fall, his morality and his gut drew him toward the island. Knowing that all road and air egress from the island had been shut down, these ordinary men exhibited an extraordinary heroism–at first spontaneously and then answering the specific call of the Coast Guard. Hundreds of boats, all types and sizes, drew up to the bottom of the island and helped people escape the horror.  No one knew if there would be another attack and, yet, these men went right to the epicenter of the battle.

Don’t take my word for it. Watch it. Let me know what you think.

The voices of these ordinary men seem somehow to clash against the voices of polarized political vitriol that has muddied the airwaves this election season.  The presidential campaign seems more like a summer camp color war battle to me than an informed discussion of who might lead our country in the right direction.  To hear the pols tell it, each side is anti-American in some way.  I highly recommend BOATLIFT as a refresher course in what being American, and being human, should mean to us all.

Thank you, Tom Hanks, and the makers of BOATLIFT for using documentary film to tell this story so simply and powerfully.

BOATLIFT: Executive Producers Stephen Flynn and Sean Burke. Co-directed by Rick Velleu. Narrator: Tom Hanks

Hope Springs (Movie Notes)

17 Sep

I really wanted to like Hope Springs. How could it not be funny, I thought? Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in a film about a married couple finding their way back to each other. I thought, “Ah, another funny film with great actors. It will zing like Something’s Gotta Give (2010) with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.”

Basic storyline: Kay and Arnold have been married for 31 years. Within the first ten minutes we learn about their marriage:

  • They sleep in separate rooms, and barely acknowledge each other.
  • She makes his breakfast every morning, silently putting it on the table in front of him.
  • He eats it while reading the paper, doesn’t say thank you, and takes his leave with a few words indicating when he’ll return.
  • She responds with the dinner menu.
  • She works at a clothing store. He’s an accountant.
  • She makes a lovely dinner for their anniversary and invites the kids. He seems to forget it, or, worse, sees nothing to celebrate.
  • She moons over him and is sad that they’ve come to this silent, empty moment in their marriage.
  • He is either content with or oblivious to the stagnation and status quo.

So, when Kay makes a bold move and books them a week of intensive therapy in Maine, made bolder because she “pays for it with her own money,” my first question was, “Wouldn’t that money be better spent on divorce counseling?”  The narrative  built no sympathy for Arnold, and made me truly wonder why a middle-aged woman who has personal financial stability would opt to save this relationship. There is no glimmer of anything shiny under the mud. No inkling given about what brought them together, what spark she still feels and why, or what there is worth saving.

Arnold grumpily agrees to join Kay on the trip after a co-worker describes what happened to his marriage when he gave refrigeratorsinstead of flowers, and silently accepted the dinner service his wife provided. So! we think, Arnold does care. He’s a major curmudgeon and clearly something is bothering him, but he cares! Hurray.

It comes as notsurprise that Arnold can’t remember the last time they had sex and that Kay craves intimacy.  As the therapist, commonly known as Bernie around the quaint town of Hope Springs, Steve Carroll plays his most sedentary role ever.  I found myself wondering if his butt hurt from making this whole film sitting down. I think I should have been thinking about Kay and Arnold, don’t you? To be fair, Carrell plays Dr. Bernie with steadfast compassion and kindness, helping the couple address difficult issues that could make anyone squirm.

They go through Bernie’s exercises, and it’s one step forward, two steps back for most of the film. Some of the scenes were viscerally painful to watch. Others, simply difficult to believe. Kay’s eagerness borders on an adolescent crush. Arnold’s reticence signals deeper troubles into which we’re given no insight. I do agree with Rolling Stone reviewer, Peter Travers, that these are two of the best actors on the planet. Streep’s timing and reserve definitely express every nuance of Kay’s desperation, desires, and needs. Her Mona Lisa-smile as she inches toward what she wants is delightful. And Tommy Lee Jones could teach Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon a thing or two about grumpy old men.

But, I never did understand her motivation for working so hard to save this relationship. Nor his sudden catharsis and turn around. (Although his bashful smile when he tells her she’s pretty, hinted at something deeper that I really wanted to see.) Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who has me sitting on the edge of my seat with her adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and director David Frankel, who brought out Streep’s inner comedic witch and Anne Hathaway’s deeper side in The Devil Wears Prada, simply never made this married woman care.

To add to my dismay, I had thought this a romantic comedy, based on the previews, but there was very little funny about this film. Well, there was a delightful bar scene with Elizabeth Shue as Karen, the bartender. I would have loved more of her, and her dynamic with Streep.

And, yet, it wasn’t a drama either. Not really. Culture Husband and I left this one feeling a bit depressed, by the subject matter and the execution.

Many reviewers have loved this film, and some even believe that Streep’s portrayal of the “quiet desperation” of a 60-something year old suburban housewife may have “Oscar” written all over it. I’ve provided some links below.

I’d love to feel that way.  I could name half-a-dozen films about the desparate middle class housewife that packed more punch and pathos (I’ll start with Julianne Moore’s brilliant performance in Todd Hayne’s Safe).

I’ll refrain from any “Hope Springs” play on words. Let’s just say that I’m hopeful I’ll enjoy the next film I see a bit more.

For Surely They Touched the Face of G-d–Remembering Jeffrey on 9/11

10 Sep

 In March, Culture Husband and I celebrated our anniversary with a night in a posh hotel near Battery Park City.  We ended our trip with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated.

The atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away.

We thought we knew what to expect, at least in terms of what the memorials would look like. We’d read about the waterfalls flowing into holes placed where the foundations of the towers were. But nothing can truly prepare you for the sense of loss, and of hope, that the falling water and the seemingly endless hole convey.  I was reminded of a recurring nightmare I had as a child, in which I was alone in all-white room and a hole in the ground opened up, pulling me in somehow. The 9/11 Memorial pulled me in differently–the water was calming and soothing. The open hole is deep enough as to seem infinite. And, looming behind us the symbol of our resilience, the new ONe WTC or the “Freedom Tower.”

As we entered the sacred space of the memorial park, we stopped to listen to a guide talk about the Survivor Tree. Originally planted in the 1970s, this Callery pear tree had grown to about eight feet tall by the beginning of this century. It was found in the rubble of the crumbled towers, its limbs burnt and leafless, its trunk charred, and its roots exposed. A rescue team removed the tree to a Parks Department nursery where it was nursed back to life. In December 2010, the tree was returned to Ground Zero, to a place of prominence in the park.  It shows the scars of its trauma. But it has grown to nearly 30 feet tall in the past 11 years and it blooms each year. If you look closely you can see the new growth emerging from the damage. There is no question that this tree is a living metaphor for rebirth and resilience. That this tree survived what steel and stone could not stopped us in our tracks. The power of nature to heal reminds us that we are made of the same living cells as this tree and we too can heal.

In that spirit, we continued our visit to its intended destination, the memorial to my friend Jeffrey Gardner.

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

As the politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished, I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother.
Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life.
My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend.
Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered.
In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life.
On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me.
I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory.
Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Fable or Fantasy? (Movie Notes)

4 Sep
The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green has been classified as a “fantasy drama” film, and I suppose that if you need to put a genre label on it, this works well enough.   Yet, for me, the magical, transformative, and moral qualities that make the film enjoyable (or not, depending on your taste) make it more clearly a fable than a fantasy, and perhaps closer to a fairytale. But, this is a fable meant to teach adults, not children, hidden in a film for the whole family.

This quirky little film has ignited interesting conversation and moving online video footage. People either love it or hate it. I found it sweet, charming, and, well-inoffensive. I agree with the reviewers who have noted that this could have, perhaps should have, been a breakout summer film and, sadly, just didn’t quite hit the mark to get there.

[SPOILER ALERT] The film is narrated as an extended flashback by Cindy and Jim Green, a happily married couple who are, as we meet them, being interviewed by an adoption agency official. She asks them what experience they have. Together they respond “Timothy” and then begin to tell a tale that even they know seems unbelievable.

Their story begins with the heartbreak as Jim and Cindy learn that no medical means are available for them to have their own child.  Devastated by the news of infertility, they return home and devise a grieving process. They write down the qualities that their child would have had–their hopes and dreams for their offspring–put the slips of paper in a box and, in the dead of night, bury the box in the vegetable garden that Cindy lovingly tends.

While they are sleeping, a sudden electrical rainstorm breaks out, and Jim is awoken by the heavy rains. He thinks he hears something in the house and gets up to investigate.  Eventually, he and Cindy discover a naked, mud-covered boy in their house.  Seeing the little leaves growing out of his calves (yes, that’s right), they run to the garden where they realize that their box of traits has sprouted a real, live boy.

Jim and Cindy are good, warm people, desperate  to be parents. So, when Timothy calls them Mom and Dad, they accept readily, even greedily.  The next day they introduce Timothy to their family–Cindy’s too-perfect sister with her over-programmed, over-achieving kids and Jim’s dad, who celebrates manly success, but ignores all other human behavior.

There are a lot of reviews of this film (see links below). My aim is to talk about this film as it relates to fairytales or fables. Fairytales are typically analyzed as an ancient way of teaching life lessons, perhaps about sexuality or worldly dangers. Fables have moralistic lessons, Mishnaic almost. In both instances, the stories (which began in oral traditions, and exist in some form in nearly every culture I’ve ever encountered, are intended to teach children.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is quite unusual in that it is a fable about parenthood and community, about what a parent is or should be.  Witness: A lovely, young, hardworking couple is given a devastating diagnosis of incurable infertility. Unlike what we see in the news (or celebrity rags) there is no miracle. They have to work hard to adopt, after they have mourned their genetic child.

Meanwhile, Jim’s dad is a macho, insensitive father who, we learn, has never been unconditionally supportive. If the kid is on the bench, Jim’s dad leaves the soccer game.  Cindy’s sister has kids whose extracurricular activities have been chosen not because of their interests but with an eye toward getting them in to the right college. Her family doesn’t through a holiday party–they give a holiday concert, encouraging good cheer while demonstrating their musical prowess and magazine photogenic qualities. Both of these parental archetypes are focused on achievement and image. The contrast to Jim and Cindy seems intent on portraying them as having a certain kind of moral bankruptcy, or at least having very shallow reasons for wanting to be parents.

Cindy and Jim, on the other hand, receive Timothy without question and with pure love. They do try to change, then hide, his difference, but as parents this may be their biggest mistake.

Every now and then, the flashback stops and the adoption official interjects a comment or question meant to make Jim and Cindy (and us) question their fitness as parents, their ability to make decisions, to handle intense emotions. But, when we return to the narrative, the contrast of their openness and unconditional love to Cindy’s sister and Jim’s dad makes clear who director Peter Hedges (writer What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, dir Pieces of April) thinks is the better parent.

Timothy’s friend Joni provides another touchpoint for understanding Hedge’s message about community and interpersonal relations. Timothy first sets eyes on her during one of the moments when the emergence of the sun has caused him to stop in his tracks and tilt his face up, as plants do. Joni’s presence interrupts his meditation and he watches her ride away on a bicycle strewn with leaves. Perhaps her recognizes her as a druid of sorts, a spirit of the trees. Though she seems to be several years older than he, they develop a special friendship, eventually creating a secret world in the woods decorated with all kinds of canopies and furniture they have crafted out leaves, flowers, and tree bark. When it is time for him to go, he explains it first to Joni.

The appearance of Timothy is not just a gift to Jim, Cindy, and Joni. As he appears, Stanleyville is in the midst of a long drought and its major employer, a pencil factory, is about to lay off hundreds of workers. The town itself seems to have lost its fertility.  Jim and Cindy restore this when they Timothy’s innocent wish that they invent another kind of pencil. When they succeed, the plant owner’s son tries to take credit. Timothy, uncowed, grabs a microphone at a town meeting and declares his parents the inventors. He tells his story–leaves and all–to set things straight. The lesson here, as with the contrasting parent examples, seems to be that it is the focus on personal achievement that has left Stanleyville dry and that community and humility will jumpstart the econonmy of the town.

With the factory’s acceptance of the new pencil, Timothy’s season of change ends. Leaving gifts of his fallen leaves to remind people of what he brought, he disappears as mysteriously as he arrived. Mud to mud, as it were.  His truth, however, remains.

As several commentators point out, watching film that “stuns you by breaking your heart seems to be a sort of rite of passage for children of a certain age.” Culture Sprout didn’t see it that way.  She didn’t think of Timothy as having died. Rather, she understood that he was a plant, of sorts, a fabulous creation, who, like trees, had a cycle to complete. When I asked if she was sad at the end, she said, no, that Timothy had done what he came to do and that, like he said, it was time for him to go. Perhaps her life experience has made her differently sensitive than other children, but it was in fact, her reaction, her innate understanding of the destiny Timothy had come to fulfill, that got me thinking about this film as fable rather than fantasy.

This is a lovely family film. Culture Sprout enjoyed it as did Culture Grandmother.  But, it is not a fable or a fairytale in the usual sense. Its lessons are for us–the middle-aged custodians of our children’s future. As a good fable tries, it teaches us that there is another way to make our towns (our economy, our families) creative and fertile again, that we need to look beyond striving to get our kids in to the right schools or only cheering for the varsity soccer team.  It wants us to find value in nature and in the natural affinities that make us a community. It is, actually, a bit schmaltzy. It’s also a lovely film to contemplate as we enter the preparation period for the Jewish high holidays and in the run-up to the November elections. Ultimately, it teaches as Aesop himself might have, to contemplate that it is our job, each of us, to make our world a better place. Or, perhaps, as Voltaire might have, “That we must cultivate our gardens.”

Art & Culture In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

29 Aug
Civil engineering and infrastructure repair in...

Civil engineering and infrastructure repair in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that Hurricane Isaac has to a tropical storm and, more importantly, I know that my friends and cousin in New Orleans are safe, it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and think about the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. If not for Isaac, I suspect that today–the 7th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans–would have been a day of remembrance. Instead, the federal and state government stood by, ready to demonstrate that lessons had been learned about response and rescue.

I’ve been thinking a lot not about what we lost in Hurricane Katrina–certainly plenty was lost and not yet regained–but what we gained, culturally and artistically. I thought I’d dedicate this post to a brief round-up of Art & Culture in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. I have not read or seen everything that deals with the hurricane, or life after it, but I do have a few favorites.

Cover of "Zeitoun"

Cover of Zeitoun

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers may be one of the best literary non-fictionwriters of my generation and in this book he tells a story that may illustrate the defining mindset of our post-911 U.S. Zeitoun follows Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born father of 4, owner of a painting and contracting company, and a Muslim, as he attempts to protect his property during the aftermath of the storm. Having sent his wife and children out of the city, Zeitoun not only checks on his own properties and renters, but also aids animals and people stranded by the storm.  Eventually, after being seen praying on the rooftop of his house, Zeitoun is detained by Homeland Security. His wife has no idea where he is. Eggers’s narrative follows Zeitoun from the decision to evacuate his family to his 6-day detention during which time his wife thinks he is dead. Eggers describes, in restrained prose, not only Zeitoun’s impressions of NOLA in the aftermath of the storm by the humiliations through which this man is subjected when he is mistaken for a member of Al Quaeda.

I read this book in 2009 and write all of the above from memory because it is that indelibly printed on my psyche. As a memoir of the hurricane, the book helps us see the lackluster response of FEMA to the storm, the devastation of the city, and the inherent socioeconomic inequalities of evacuation and rescue. Inevitably, it prompts conversations about civil rights. This tale of a compassionate man who is mistaken for a terrorist because he is a devout Muslim drives home the xenophobia that remains one of the ultimate legacies of President Bush’s post-9/11 policies and rhetoric.

As one reviewer wrote (I paraphrase), if we were to create a time-capsule including one book that epitomized the post-9/11 mentality of the U.S., this book should be it.*

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I wrote about this film last week. In some respects it underscores the issues of diversity raised by Eggers’s book. In other respects, it shows the staggering free will and independence of the proud people of the “Bathtub.”  I remember seeing the road to the “Bathtub” washed out and hearing news reports of people who had refused to leave, of a peninsula turned island by the storm. This film shows us all that through the eyes and words of a six-year old, in all its exquisite (in both the sense of beauty and of blinding pain) emotions. As the mother of a seven-year old, I can’t fathom how a child can be as strong and self-reliant as HushPuppy or how an eight -ear old can summon the reserves to portray her on film. Read my notes about Beasts of the Southern Wild here.

Service Learning at Tulane University: One of the most wonderful outcomes, in my viewpoint, of the storm was the reaction of the institutions of higher learning and their collaborations with the city in rebuilding. A requirement added across the Tulane curriculum in 2006, “Academic Service Learning,” in the words of the university’s website, “is an educational experience based upon a collaborative partnership between the university and the community. Through reflection and assessment, students gain deeper understanding of course content and the importance of civic engagement.” I’ve heard anecdotally that high school seniors are considering Tulane not just for its fine academic reputation and choice location in New Orleans, but also because they want to be part of the service learning program and give back to the community.

Treme: Entering its third season on HBO. It follows the residents of the Treme neighborhood–musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, business owners, regular people–as they try to rebuild their lives and neighborhood. American television at its best by the master, David Simon. What more need I say?

Of course, there is more. There’s the Spike Lee’s Emmy-winning When the Levees Broke and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Academy Award-nominated Trouble the Water. More I’ve seen and can’t call to mind right now. More I haven’t seen or read. More civic and religious rebuilding programs and legacies. But, these are my highlights, the unforgettable watermarks of a storm that changed the way I think about storms. Please feel free to suggest your own favorites.

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*In a sad post-script, I note that the hero of Zeitoun has recently been arrested for allegedly assaulting his now ex-wife and plotting to injure or kill several other people.

Beast of the Southern Wild (Movie Notes)

22 Aug


Sometimes a movie leaves me speechless, with tears streaming down my cheeks.  Walking out of the theater, stunned, I am struck that everything around me looks and sounds different than it did when I entered.

Beast of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)  knocked me over tonight. It is achingly haunting, stunning, gorgeous, and uplifting in its sadness.  There is power, poverty, heartbreak, and hope. The acting by non-actors, especially Quvenzhané Wallis who brilliantly portrays six-year old Huspuppy, combined with mobile, handheld cameras, close up framing, and raw story bring to mind the best of the Brazilian Cinema Nôvo of the 1960s.

I’m truly speechless–at a loss to pull all my thoughts together cohesively. I don’t know whether to draw a thread through the Hushpuppy’s conversations with her absent mom and her visions of aurochs or to talk about her strength, innocence, and perserverence. The lessons of childhood–that we are creative and determined until we learn not to be–are all there. And, of course, there is the cinemetography, the first-person narration, and evolution of the film from the stage play.

Right now, though, I’m too busy processing it, letting it roll over me. And feeling, as Hushpuppy so eloquently puts it, that I am a tiny piece in a big, big universe. Swirling all around me, as around her, are the invisible pieces of the things that made me, that made Huspuppy and Wallis, that made this film.

And since this film won major awards at Sundance, Cannes, and the Los Angeles Film Festival, you don’t need me to tell you all about it. Instead, I will share a few reviews that led me to search this film out this summer.

Go see this film. Then go home, embrace the ones you love, and realize how much more community and hope are than the things that fill our shopping bags.


Princess Mononoke (Movie Notes)

29 Jul
Gene Siskel Film Center

Gene Siskel Film Center (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Moving 800 miles for the second time in as many years is not my idea of a good time. But if you’re a cinephile, and you’ve already spent two decades in Chicago, moving back to the Windy City has its distinct pleasures.

One of these is the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute.  The programming is always cutting edge, and you can count on a steady diet of new Asian cinema, the Black Harvest Film Festival, classic Hollywood favorites and forgotten gems, and films you might never otherwise have the chance to see. I  had the privilege of teaching at the Film Center in the early nineties. My students and public audiences challenged me–many were quite knowledgeable and they kept me on my toes–and introduced me to the great public conversation around film fostered by the Film Cener.

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our corporate housing is just over the river from the Film Center so it was with glee that I picked up the July program and saw that the month includes a series of Studio Ghibli films.  Culture Sprout is a big fan of Ponyo (2008*) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). And, of course, we loved The Secret World of Arietty (2010).

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, last Saturday Culture Sprout and I walked to the Film Center to see Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997), written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Princess Mononoke is an allegorical fantasy that tackles the looming issue of the destruction of the natural world by human progress. Produced two decades before Wall-E (2008), Pixar’s post-trash-Apocolyptic  tale about humankind fleeing a planet they have (literally) trashed, Princess Mononoke‘s conflict and lessons seem prescient. Yet, it doesn’t treat odernization and manufacturing as inherently evil. Instead, the film tries to find a way to balance the inevitable “march of progress,” and its disturbing repercussions for nature, with our desire to preserve nature.

The film opens as evil approaches the long-isolated Amishi village. Amidst swirling clouds, the elder scout and the young prince sense, rather than see, evil approaching. When danger finally emerges from the trees, it is in the form of a giant boar who seems possessed by a covering of worms that ooze from his body, forming devilish shapes as they torment him and cause him to rage. In order to save his vilalge, Ashitaka (Billy Cuddup) fights and kills the demon-boar. As it lays dying, it curses the Amishi people to know the hatred and evil that have consumed it. This opening 10 minutes is awash in suspense, action, and foreboding.

When the spot where the boar touches him burns, the wise woman tells Ashitaka that the poison will eventually kill him. She counsels him to travel to the West, from where the demon came, see “with eyes unclouded by hate” what has caused the giant boar to turn from god to demon, and perhaps learn to live with his fate.

Ashitaka sets off on his quest with solemn determination, riding his red elk, Yakul. The film slows down to the lovely, thoughtful cadence we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli. The animation expresses the fable through its pen and ink-like renderings of the historic setting (the latter part of the Muromachi Period).

Along the way, he passes a village being pillaged by Samarai warriors. He looses an arrow to help and discovers that his poisoned arm has superhuman powers.  A monk named Jigo(Billy Bob Thornton)  tells him the story of the forbidden forest in which live giant animal gods. Jigo leads him to believe that the spirit of this forest might be able to cure Ashitaka.

Eventually Ashitaka comes to Iron Mountain, on the edge of the forest, where he encounters Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), whose workers toil at mining iron which she turns into rifles and ammunition. He realizes that the iron ball which destroyed the boar god came from this mountain. At the same time, he encountars Moro (Gillian Anderson), the wolf god, her two cubs, and San (Claire Danes), a human girl whose spirit Moro has possessed as payment for crimes committed by the girl’s parents. The wolf tribe is determined to destroy Eboshi in order to save the forest.

He finds himself suddenly at the center–physically and morally–of the struggle between the gods and spirits of the forest, and the humans who consume the forest and want to destroy its protectors. Ashitaka’s eyes are unclouded by hate, as the wise woman instructed him. Moreover, his people have been exiled to a remote corner of Japan, where they have lived for more than five centuries, forgotten by time and culture. He knows nothing of hate, war, or deceit. In fact, when the boar-demon first attacks the village, he tries to reason with it. Ashitaka is a pure soul. He sees the good in each person, doesn’t judge, and tries to find a balanced solution.

The deligthful art will keep you engaged, even at the slowest moments (occasionally the film feels like it could have been edited for a slightly faster pace). The film’s orchestral soundtrack conveys the historical and fabular nature of the film. At times it swells  menacingly, other times it tinkles both gleefully and slighty ghoulishly when the kodama or spirits of the trees (kind of like Druids) appear.

Kodama in Princess Mononoke.

The kodama were fascinating to me.  Like the Wil’o Whisps in Brave, they lead Ashitaka through the forest.  He has to trust that they will guide him safely and that they are friendly as they don’t talk. A small lesson about letting nature guide our human behavior.

There is a lot to unpack in this film about industrialization’s toll on the natural world. Beyond that there are all of the folkloric connections to Japanese culture and the fascinating ways in which we can see the same characters and themes in Western culture. And wonderful commentary to be made about a tale full of magic in which the prince and princess become good friend, but respect each other’s dreams and part, as good friends, at the end of the film. Princess Mononoke, for that is who San is, is a princess we can cheer–she is fierce, strong, determined, kind, smart, and loyal. She falls for Ashitaka, sort of, but I think what really happens is that she recognizes her own humanity in his and is able to empathize.  Certainly we can aspire for our own daughters to have such qualities.

Happy Feet and Wall-E also have strong environmental lessons and questions embedded in engaging stories. As a film scholar, I know there’s a paper in there somewhere.  As a mom, I wonder if kids take these ideas to heart more than the generations that precede them has done.

As we left the theater and got smacked by +100 degree heat, I couldn’t help but think about global warming, Charlotte’s concern with it, and what kind of world we’re leaving to her generation. The folks at Studio Ghibli have been thinking about this for more than +20 years. Too bad the rest of us haven’t caught up with them.

I was worried that Princess Mononoke would be bit too long for 7-year old Culture Sprout, but she was riveted. We definitely recommend seeing this if you have the chance.

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