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A Letter to President-elect Trump

11 Nov

November 11, 2016

Dear President-elect Trump,

On Wednesday, for the first time since you declared your candidacy, you said you would be a president for all Americans. As someone who did not support you, and who lamented the tenor of your campaign, I fervently want to believe you. But, in the wake of your election so much violence and hate has already been directed at people of color, immigrants, gays—my neighbors, friends and loved ones. The perpetrators are committing these acts in your name, stating that they feel justified in tormenting their fellow Americans because you were elected.

Your candidacy proved that words have power. The power to get you elected, to be sure. More importantly, your words have power. They have the power to incite violence—even if that was not your intent. And we have to hope that they have the power to heal.

If you truly want to be a president for all Americans, to begin a period of post-election healing and work toward the peaceful transition of power that is the hallmark of our democratic experiment, then use your words now. Come out of your tower and address the people, your people. Lead them by publicly denouncing and condemning the violence that is being done in your name. Speak to Americans who are afraid of your policies and tell them that you do not support acts and words of hate. That you will lead by respecting our rule of law and our culture of civility.

And then, consider appointing a cabinet that looks like America—all the colors of the human rainbow, all the genders of the human being.

This country was founded so that all who live here can pursue life, liberty and happiness. Our constitution, which you will shortly swear to defend, guarantees all Americans equality and these inalienable rights. We have sealed this guarantee for more the 200 years with the peaceful transfer of power. We have been a beacon of hope and an example of democracy, learning from our mistakes and revising our laws to be ever more inclusive along the way.

I am a proud American. My grandmother’s family fled pogroms in Russia to find refuge in the promise of the United States. My great-great uncle lied about his age to become the oldest officer to serve in the Army during WWII, surviving the Bataan death march and the war in his defense of democracy. My husband became a naturalized citizen a few years ago because he, like I, believes it is our responsibility to vote.

On Tuesday I cast my eighth vote for president. I did not vote for you. On Wednesday morning I woke up to find that you would be our president. And now, I must trust in your leadership. I must believe that as a father you do not want your young son to believe that “Trump’s America” is one filled with hatred and vitriol. That you want your legacy to be an America that is greater for all of us.

As I’m sure you know, many of your citizens are lamenting your election. They are protesting, mostly peacefully; they are posting on social media; and they are planning on working for their values and ideals. They need to see that you have put the election behind you and will now work for the good and welfare of all Americans, regardless of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin or political leanings.

Please, Mr. President-elect, use your words to heal. Use your words to show America that we can be greater than the rhetoric of this election. Use your words to mend fences and help us treat our neighbors as we would be treated ourselves.


Ilene S. Goldman



17 Feb

So true…

Remembering Veterans and the Legends They Leave Behind

27 May

My father was a U.S. Air Force veteran. He served in ROTC and after college in between WWII and the Korean War and, lucky for our family, never saw combat. Today, as every day, I remember him.

But, today I remember two family members whose service to our country has become the thing of legend, and a local veteran whose continuing service to our country inspires me. I only know tidbits of their stories, but through them, I see how service to our country creates ripples in ponds for generations.  In alphabetical order they are: Colonel Abraham Garfinkel (U.S. Army), Jimmy Proffitt (U.S. Marine Corps), and Samuel Rosen (U.S. Navy).


Memorial Day Flag Display, Boston Commons (Photo courtesy of Global Jet (Flickr). Click image for more information.)

Uncle Abe

Colonel Abraham Garfinkel

Abraham (Garfunkel) Garfinkel (d. 4/11/1962): My great-grandfather’s brother Abraham faked his age to enlist in the Army in 1900. That would be legend enough, I think, given his subsequent 45+ years of service. But he went on to be the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March and an inspiration to soldiers around him. Colonel Garfinkel was, according to the research my mother has done, one of the highest ranking Jewish Army officers at the time of his retirement. Born in 1885, Uncle Abe was near retirement when WW II broke out. Having served most of his career in the Philippines, Colonel Garfinkel continued to serve in the Pacific Rim. He was one of the highest-ranking officers on the Bataan Death March and remained a POW in various Japanese internment camps until his liberation from Mudken on August 20, 1945. Uncle Abe survived his son Lt. Harold Garfinkel  who was KIA in April 1945 in the European theater. His oldest son Capt. Bernard Garfinkel survived the war.

My distant cousin Sheldon Zimbler, a great-nephew of Uncle Abe, immortalized the men of the Bataan March in Undaunted Valor: The Men of Mudken…In their Own Words. As one reviewer wrote, it’s not a new history, but it  is one we mustn’t forget.

Jimmy Proffitt: Jimmy would blush silly if he knew I was writing this. Jimmy is a Vietnam-era Marine. He was injured stateside and never saw combat. My understanding is that he suffers survivor’s guilt because he trained many men who went to war and never came home. Jimmy is, simply put, the salt of the earth.


Jimmy Proffitt (photo from

More than 25 years ago, Jimmy and his wife found themselves with leftover Thanksgiving dinner. They made about 30 sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and headed to downtown Chicago. Once there, they found homeless men and distributed the food. Recognizing the incredible need, Jimmy and Virginia continued to make sandwiches for Chicago’s homeless. Every Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day weekends, they circle Chicago’s loop with their small army of helpers. The Chicago Homeless Sandwich Project today distributes more than 1,500 bagged lunches each week. They also provide hot and cold beverages, clothing, and a ready smile to the increasing number of homeless on our city’s streets.

We have been privileged to ride with Jimmy many times, handing out sandwiches and seeing firsthand the need he fills. Jimmy tells us that more than 75% of the homeless on our city streets are veterans, men (and now women) who have come home from war so damaged that they cannot hold a job, or who lost everything while they were serving (job, home, family) and have not been able to get back on their feet.

Jimmy was called to serve his country, and while his own life has been modest compared to many more visible philanthropists, he may be the most philanthropic person I know. Next to the hospital that saved our child, The Sandwich Project is our favorite charity and I encourage to click the link above, read about the supplies they use each year, and find out how you can help.

Samuel “Sonny” Rosen (d. 12/27/1944): Growing up, I always knew that my Aunt Ethel had married a soldier just before he shipped out on the USS Spence in the fall of 1944 and that he never came home.  Samuel Rosen left behind a widow and son, my cousin Eric who was born in June of 1945.  My cousin Eric and my father grew up together in their grandmother’s home until Aunt Ethel remarried (or my grandparents moved out, never have been sure which happened first). Though my father was 13 years older than Eric, they were quite close. My dad made sure that we knew about Samuel, but I’m sure I never quite understood what it meant, really.Samuel "Sonny" Rosen

Samuel Rosen was only 35 when he went to war . His ship, and three others, sank in a typhoon on December 27, 1944. just three months and 17 days after Samuel married Ethel. He perished along with 800 servicemen and his body was never found.

What I never understand is how viscerally affected Eric was by the loss of a father he never knew. A founding member of the American WWII Orphans Network, Eric has searched his whole life to make meaning of his loss, of the emptiness he felt, and of (in his words) “growing up fatherless in the 1940s and 1950s” shaped the man he became.  Since retiring from his long career as an attorney, Eric has studied theology and has used this study to explore the feelings he harbors about his fatherless childhood. The result is a play, The Trial of Abraham and Abraham’s Choice . This brief tome sums up all the questions about G-d and faith that Eric has had as a result of the guiding absence that has shadowed his life, situating them in the biblical tale of Abraham’s sacrifice.

Eric’s book is suspenseful and moving. It raises as many questions as it attempts to answer and it is, I think, a must read for anyone who has lost a parent in war. When I finished reading it, I felt I knew my cousin’s anguish just a bit more.

2012 in review

30 Dec

Culture Bean began as an experiment as 2012 was born. I wanted a place to write and think about culture–particularly screen culture and word culture. Given that my teaching gig had ended, I was hoping to find others with whom to converse online about topics that sparked my imagination.  I got off to a fast start, but then slowed down when we moved cross-country and I took a pretty fulltime job.

My hat is off to Brandon Isaacson, a former student and my top commenter. Thanks for taking the ride.

With any luck, I’ll get 2013 off to a big start and keep going. I’ve been collecting a lot of cultural experiences; now I just need to make time to write about them.

Here’s my 2012 annual report, with help from and thanks to the WordPress “Helper Monkeys.”

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Culture Bean will be back soon

2 Jul

In case you’re wondering, I’ve not dropped off the face of the earth nor have I stopped reading books, watching movies, and having opinions. I’ve been busy moving 800 miles west.  To know all about that, please visit Charlotte’s Journey Home.  There I fill in the details about our trek from East to Midwest with Culture Husband, Culture Sprout, and the kitties (who have no culture, really).


Watching a Moving Target: The new ABC drama “Scandal”

11 Apr

Let’s face it, they had me at “scandal,” just like they had me at “revenge.” What other two nouns in the English language could possibly convey so much drama, so many plot twists, and such colossal potential for a one-trick pony serial?  As I’ve gotten hooked (like the rest of you, admit it!) on “Revenge,” I decided to write in “real time” about “Scandal.” “Revenge” is quite fun, but I’m not sure it’s “good television” (whatever that means), and I’m wondering if “Scandal” will be different.  That means that after today, I’ll write about the week’s episode within a day or two of it’s airing.

My idea for this series began at the 2012 conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) recently held in Culture Bean’s hometown, Beantown. Attending a workshop on teaching television studies to undergraduates, I was intrigued by some ideas put forth by Professor Sean O’Sullivan of Ohio State University.   O’Sullivan  teaches serial television, usually looking at a complete season of a series, particularly if the series has ended.  He asks questions around completeness vs. incompleteness; and narrative fragment vs. narrative unity. Areas of inquiry for his students often include how to talk about the incomplete nature of the serial;  and how to talk about authorship if the serial has different directors for each episode (like, for instance, “Treme”).

The first episode of “Scandal” introduces to the characters and sets up the show’s rhythm and subplots. Like creator Shonda Rhime’s other dramas (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice”) the show revolves around a work “family” who weekly solve problems. Interlaced are personal and workplace mini-dramas which will tie episodes together. Unlike “CSI,” for instance, there is a seriality to “Scandal” in that there turns out to be a story or two that links episodes, creating the need to watch more to find out how the personal dramas will be resolved. Each episode also has a narrative unity in the weekly problems that cast must tackle.

The show’s premise: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a “fixer” whose clients pay her to protect their reputations and keep their public images pristine.  One of her associates emphasizes that while they are all attorneys, they are not a law firm. Rather, they are a crisis management team: Their goal is to ensure that a potential scandal goes away before it appears in a newspaper or a courtroom. Formerly the Director of Communications for the current President of the United States, Pope is deeply connected to the political ins and outs of Washington D.C. To heighten the drama, each of her employees has their own secret, too, with Olivia hiding the biggest, potentially most scandalous secret of them all.

First episode,”Sweet Baby,” original air date, 4/5/2012 (SPOILER ALERT!! I will talk about any and everything.)

A woman rushes across a dark city street to a crowded bar. When she finds the person waiting for her, she tells him she can’t stay because she doesn’t do blind dates. Quickly paced, smartly written dialogue establishes that this is not a date, but a job interview, in fact a job offer.  The camera swirls around Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) and Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) as quickly as they exchange repartees, moving in closer and closer as the ambient sounds of the bar fade away. When Wright mentions Pope, Perkins literally catches her breath and sits down.  He tells her that he knows she’ll accept the job because “we’re the good guys,” and she’ll be part of a team that “changes lives and slays dragons… because Olivia Pope is as amazing as they say.”

Wright continues, “I’m a gladiator in a suit because that’s what you are when you work for Olivia Pope. Do you want to be a gladiator in a suit? You gotta say it.”

“I want to be a gladiator in a suit.” Perkins replies as the show’s theme swells and we cut to the title sequence.

This cold open told me that something different might be afoot: Instead of introducing the “scandal of the week,” it introduced three key characters, one whose presence is so strong that she doesn’t need to be on-screen.  Wright, whose name rings the truth of his “good guy” persona, is determined, driven, and  honest (most of the time). He talks fast so that Perkins has no time to think, persuading her rapidly.  Perhaps, as Cynthia Fuchs notes, he also talks so fast because regluarly -paced speech simply can’t convey the power that is OLIVIA POPE. Perkins is hungry, pie-eyed, principled, and ready. Pope is, well, as “as amazing as they say.”

The sequence is played as much to introduce Oliva Pope to the viewer as it is to lure Perkins to the job. Similarly, much of the episode concentrates on conveying the characters’ strengths and weaknesses; providing a window into their relationships and desires; and hinting at the secret that each character hides. We learn, for instance, that Pope fixes her employees’ lives as well. She is, as one character puts it, a collector of stray puppies.

The word “gladiator” is repeated several times throughout the episode. Originally, a gladiator was a man trained in ancient Rome to engage in mortal combat with a wild animal or another man for the entertainment of the public.  The word has been absorbed into modern usage, typically referring to someone who staunchly defends a cause, especially a controverisal cause. As the episode unfolds, we see that Wright’s invocation of “gladiator” parses the two meanings: Olivia Pope and associates battle what they truly see as beasts, the kind that ruin reputations and end careers. They defend controversial causes using whatever weapons and tools they have at their disposal.

So what are her associates, gladiators or stray puppies?

As if to underline the brutal, visceral nature of what they do, Pope states several times that “her gut tells her everything she needs to know.”  The people around her believe her and believe in her. They follow her, almost blindly.

The first scandal is a young war hero, “the most decorated hero in recent history,” who has fled the scene of his fiancée’s murder. Sullivan St. James (Wes Brown) is a conservative Republican who makes his living on the speaker circuit denouncing social liberalism.  When Olivia’s team finds evidence to prove his alibi, he refuses to let them admit it.  It turns out that the alibi would reveal that Sully is gay. He has to balance his right-wing reputation against the possibility of life in prison. In the end, Pope and company convince him to proudly own who he is.

The show’s second scandal involves the president, who swears to Pope that he has not had an affair with a young woman ready to publicly accuse him.  Perkins accompanies Pope when she confronts the woman. She witnesses Pope telling the young woman that lying about the affair could have ugly consequences for her, enumerating the private facts that could find their way to the press, like the woman’s 22 sexual partners, a bout of gonorrhea, and her mother’s mental illness. After the woman attempts suicide, she keeps repeating that the president would come because he called her “sweet baby.” Pope knows from this that the president has lied to her about the affair. It turns out that the president and Pope have had an affair and still have deep, complicated feelings for one another. She’s left his employ so that he could fulfill his promise as president and be the man she knows he can be.

In the first episode, then, we learn that Olivia Pope’s “gut” can be right, as in the case of Sully St. James, or it can be clouded by sentiment, as in the case of the president.  Like the Pope, Olivia’s word is law in her firm, though she is flawed and, therefore, real. Pope’s secret could be her undoing, and that of the president. We can look forward to discovering to what lengths she’ll go to hide it.

Quinn Perkins is painted as the moral compass of the show, crying in the bathroom after Pope verbally eviscerates the young woman whose story threatens the president. She desperately wants to be a gladiator in a suit, but she’s still raw, emotional, and innocent. Will she develop into a gladiator in the true sense of the word? Or will she continue to provide a moral backdrop for each episode?

This episode also introduces the show’s presumably liberal politics, and creator Rhimes’s willingness to tackle difficult political issues.

For some reviews of the show, see the links below. Feel free to add links to other reviews.

My verdict is not yet. Stay tuned!

A Read Aloud Canine Story, or My Mother the Reading Hero

5 Mar

My mother read to me when I was little. I honestly don’t remember if she read to me every night. I know she read some poetry to me because I’ve been able to recite from memory A.A. Milne’s “Now we are six,” “Sneezles,” and “King John’s Christmas” for as long as I remember. My love for those poems–the rthymns, words, and sentiments–helps me to understand why we call memorization “learning by heart.” Those poems are in my heart. And the care-worn volumes in which they are collected, once my mother’s books then mine, are on Culture Sprout’s bookshelf.

Illustration of Benjamin and Peter gathering o...

She also read a lot of Beatrix Potter, enough that when my parents went to London when I was an adult and asked if I wanted anything, I asked for a complete set of the beautiful miniature Potter books, my originals having long disappeared from my bedroom (probably given to another lucky child).  Culture Sprout doesn’t yet love Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit as I did, but I know she will.

My mother loves to read.  She likes to tell how she would get in trouble for staying up too late reading, and how her father teased her for always having her nose in a book. My father often had two or more books going at once–one novel and one non-fiction–as well as myriad magazines and newspapers that he devoured. While I don’t remember him reading to me, he bought me books whenever he thought about it–lovely leather-bound classics like Wuthering Heights and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Mom now takes her love of reading and nurturing reading on the road, as it were, combining it with her love of all things canine.  A long time volunteer with Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Mom takes one of her Bichon Frises to a local elementary school several times a month for the children to read to. You read that correctly–Mom doesn’t read to the kids. The kids read to the dog. Why? Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) help children overcome their insecurities about reading by giving them a non-judgmental, always willing audience. According ABC News, a 2010 University of California, Davis study proved that:

“Young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement.”

Below is a photo of a boy reading to my mother’s dog Lily.  You can’t see his smile or the beautiful eye contact he was making with her because I’m uncomfortable posting pictures of other people’s children. Trust me–this is a treat for him. Mom’s job is to bring the dog, hold the leash, and offer assistance if (and only if) the child asks her for some help. Lily’s job is to, well, lie down, listen, wag, lick, and look cute. She’s good at it.

My mom has taken her dogs to the pediatric wing of the Newark Beth Israel Hospital, to nursing homes, and to a staging center for 9/11 First Responders. With her therapy dogs, she’s helped more people than I know about in more ways than she’ll ever admit.  She doesn’t talk about it. But, R.E.A.D. she talks about. She’s moved by these children who read to her dogs and gain the confidence to improve their skills enough to fall in love with reading. I’m moved by her continued commitment to fostering a love of reading to another generation. Go, Mom!

Berenstein Bears, Finding Joy in Kindness and Civility

29 Feb

A few months ago, Culture Sprout found the Barenstein Bear books in her school library. She is a bona fide ursaphile, if such a word exists–loving all things to do with bears, especially of the stuffed and cartoon variety. Week after week she brough home a new Berenstain Bears book for us to read together or to read on her own. She was delighted to discover that she had about five of her own Berenstain Bear books and we began reading those, too.

The Berenstain Bears

Image via Wikipedia

At first read, I was a bit underwhelmed. Culture Sprout has long-since passed from the picture book only phase (not to say we don’t read picture books) and these seemed a bit basic for her.  Then I paid attention to the words.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • The Berenstain Family teaches their children to be kind, polite, considerate, and thoughtful.
  • Brother and Sister often get into some trouble (books have titles such as Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Money/Friends/School), discover that they don’t like the way they have behaved (or their parents don’t), correct or apologize for the behavior, and learn a lesson. Papa raises his voice sometimes, but his love is always evident. Mama worries and frets and occasionally yells, but she’s always available to help solve a problem.
  • The Berenstain Family teaches that apologies work if you mean it.
  • They are big advocates of treating others the way you want to be treated is always the way to go.
  • People are all different and when a family of Panda Bear moves in and plants a bamboo (!) garden, it’s fun to find out how their food, traditions, practices are different and even more fun to discover how much we have in common.
  • Brother and Sister Bear experience many of the emotions and situations that challenge any child (fear of the doctor; jealousy of a friend or sibling; desire for a new pet, etc.) and their story provides a nice springboard for a discussion.
  • Charlotte wants to talk about the mistakes Brother and Sister made, and sometimes how she can see the same things in her own behavior.
  • While the books teach moral lessons, they are  (or universally religious) and definitely not pedantic.

What I didn’t know until yesterday is that the Berenstains have been writing these books for 50 years, literally teaching two generations about the importance of family and kindness and acceptance of difference through 300 books. I’m flabbergasted and awestruck.

Cover of "The Berenstain Bears' New Baby&...

Cover of The Berenstain Bears' New Baby

Last night, in a fitting tribute, we read  The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby. First published in 1974, this book expands the family from Mama, Papa and Small Bear with the addition of Sister Bear. Small Bear (who becomes Brother Bear) outgrows his handcrafted baby bed just in time to hand it down to his new little sister.  I love the easy acceptance of  a new baby, even though Small Bear had not realized Mama was pregnant (he did notice that it was getting harder to sit on her lap!).

While many of the Berenstain Bear books are timeless, this one does reveal its moment of publication. Just one year after the first commercial publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves (which was originally published as a 12-page newsprint handout in 1971, and formalized as a book by Simon & Schuster in 1973), in the early moments of the women’s health movement, Sister Bear arrives while Papa and Brother are in the woods making a new big boy bed.  When Papa and Brother leave, Mama is very pregnant, patting her belly, and smiling knowingly as she closes the door. When they return a few hours later, Mama is tucking the new baby into the baby bed. Mama hasn’t changed and doesn’t look like she’s gone through anything. Sister is dressed, smiling, and sporting a pink bow. And no one asks where the baby came from.Fait accompli, a family of four. I was tickled and relieved that Charlotte didn’t ask me where the baby came from! But, the point was that Brother accepted her and looked forward to being the big kid. Subsequent books deal with sibling rivalry and sibling friendship.

I’m sure that Jan and Stan (and their son Dan) Berenstain spent more effort to create these wonderful books than Mama Bear seems to have (alone!) to bring Sister into the treehouse.  To the Berenstain family, our thanks for enriching children’s literature. Goodnight, Mama Bear.

The Secret World of Arietty: Floating with the Borrowers (Movie Notes)

27 Feb

Countless people have rhapsodized about the joy of movie going. One of my favorites quips is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, “For me cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”

In that spirit, I was enchanted to see the (formerly known as) Kodak Theater dressed up as a classic movie palace, complete with “cigarette” girls (serving popcorn) for last night’s 84th Academy Awards ceremony. The icing on the cake was made by 5 awards each going to The Artist and Hugo, two films which celebrate the history, artistry, legacy, and magic of the movies.

I try to find each film’s individual meaning, the message it conveys to me or what it says about the culture in which it was produced. I ask my students, “If a movie projects in an empty theater, does it have meaning?” For me, the answer is a resounding “no.”

I also ask them if we can find that a movie is “good” even if we don’t particularly care for it for one reason or another. Their answer is generally “yes” as they can find great cinematography in the service of a mediocre story or a great story misserved by underwhelming acting.  I’m not so clear on that question.

I don’t go in for overarching statements like “movies should transport you,” or “the book (movie) is always better than the movie (book),” or “animation is just for kids.”  As the Academy Awards show every year, the essence of any film is nuanced and layered.

With all this in mind, I thought I’d kick off Culture Bean’s movie discussions with a few words about The Secret World of Arrietty (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi).

The previews for Arrietty enchanted me.  I loved the fantasy of miniature people living inside a home’s walls, making their own home, borrowing only what they need to survive.  The expressive round eyes of the main characters stuck with me from that preview until our family outing this weekend.

Photo Courtesy of Disney

Arrietty  tells the story of the Clock family, 4-inch tall people who live inside the walls of a suburban home.  Small enough to hide under a leaf as they traverse the yard for the rare trip outdoors, they fend for themselves by “borrowing” from the Beans (regular-sized human beings) only what they need. They live in fear of being detected, and worry that they may be the only Borrowers left on earth.  When a new Bean, a young boy named Shawn, comes to the house, Arrietty is intrigued. Her parents, Homily and Pod,worry that her curiosity (and his) will cause devastation.

Shawn  is a lonely, sickly boy who needs a friend. His divorcing parents have sent him to his aunt in the country for care and relaxation before heart surgery. Aunt Jessica seems reserved and detached, though caring. Her housekeeper, Hara, is a scheming busy-body. Both have heard tell of the small people who live in the walls. Jessica’s father built a dollhouse for them hoping they’d appear. She and Shawn’s mother had romantic notions about the miniature people and she now thinks that perhaps Shawn’s mother won’t come back to their childhood home because it was a place where “so many dreams didn’t come true.”  Hara, voiced by the incomparable Carol Burnett, only wants to capture a mini-person so she can prove that they exist and that she’s not crazy. {By the way, she’s nuts!]

Arrietty is a preteen in search of adventure and human contact. She is spirited, brave, and thoughtful. Her mother, Homily, is hysterically (in both senses, perfectly played by Amy Poehler) terrified of Beans and her father, Pod, is a man of few words. When she realizes that Shawn has seen her, she knows that she has changed her family’s life forever. She will eventually change Shawn’s life as well.

As rendered by Studio Ghibli, The Secret of Arrietty is a stunning visual treat. The Japanese approach to animation conveys a calm serenity. The gardens combine the colors of Monet’s Giverny and the subtlety of Japanese Ukiyo-e painting and woodblock prints. Like Ukiyo-e, the film conveys the impermanence of our reality, the fleeting nature of beauty. Most often translated as “pictures of the floating world,” Ukiyo-e art isolates a moment in time, drawing it out for our attention, entertainment, and consideration. Arrietty‘s “floating world” is Aunt Jessica’s home and garden during one summer week. For Arrietty, that world is inhabited by predators–from Beans to Mina that cat to hungry birds, crickets, and rats. She hides under leaves, tosses a dung beetle in her palm, and is followed by a lucky ladybug. For Shawn, it is a world where he is alone with Mina the cat who is at first dismissive of him; Hara, who urges him to rest; and a garden or bed in which to read. Discovering that Arrietty is real gives him, literally, something to live for. The animation does not minutely recreate reality as we’ve come to expect from Pixar and others. Rather, it slows us down, pulls us into the image, and causes us to consider each frame as a painting.

This sense of contemplation is aided by the calm rhythm of the editing and sound. While our pulse quickens when something threatens a Borrower (no spoilers here), both the music and the editing maintain a steady beat meant to lessen our excitement, much as Shawn must be kept calm prior to his surgery.

The Secret World of Arrietty has so much to recommend it. And as one of my favorite film reviewers, Bob Mondello, has eloquently written about it, I want to talk about it more as a parent than a critic.

In a world where children’s films show role models that I don’t necessarily approve for Culture Sprout (think of nearly any Disney Princess–no matter how spunky she is, the goal is to end up with the guy, married and “happily ever after”); or missing parents replaced by evil steps (even the kind who turn good like Gru); or car chases, violence, and trash-talking (Toy Story and Cars, I do love you, really!), The Secret World of Arrietty is a refreshing coming-of-age tale about two children who, for very different reasons, are forced to recognize their own mortality and who find in each other renewed compassion and empathy. It is a story that sparks the imagination rather than directing it. And, it leaves behind a sense of joy and peace.

When Shawn asks Arrietty if she is afraid that she and her family are the only Borrowers and that they might soon be extinct, she is amazed at his prescience. She doesn’t say so, of course. It is evident in her face, in the shot-reverse shot sequence that grows increasingly intimate between the two of them, and in the way the audience draws its breath. He speaks of death e corrects himself to say that it is he who might die soon, talking about his upcoming heart surgery, and his lack of faith that he will survive. These are heady thoughts for a kid to manage. And, yet, I was thrilled to hear them voiced because they are thoughts that kids have, about themselves and others. And, it’s not often that my kid, a heart patient, gets to see herself on-screen.

In the end (spoiler here, sorry), we learn that while Arrietty and her family do move away, that she begins a friendship with a more appropriate playmate (a Borrower), and that Shawn survives to visit the house another summer, at least. They have entered each other’s hearts and are each the better and braver because of it. This is the stuff of lasting friendships–the impact we have on each other’s lives even if our moments together are fleeting.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a lovely floating world in the sea of (really fun) loud, fast, crazy kids’ movies. It’s a celebration of animation, of film, and of friendship, and of children’s books, much as the Academy Awards were last night. I wonder, as does Bob Mondello, if its quiet meditiative nature will appeal to U.S. children. But I take heart in the fact that it’s been kicking around the world since 2009, translated from the Japanese by the British, the French, and now by Disney.

I’ve somehow missed Mary Norton’s children’s book, The Borrowers, from which the film was adapted. I’m on my way to the library right now!


Donating to LitWorld in Support of Global Literacy

25 Feb

Please consider a small donation to LitWorld in honor of World Read Aloud Day and in support of Global Literacy. Your small donation provides things we take for granted to less-privileged and less-literate folks.

For example,

$15 can supply a LitWorld LitClub with pens & pencils; $30 can send books to a LitWorld LitClub for World Read Aloud Day; $65 can equip a LitWorld community with writer’s notebooks; $100 can help launch a LitWorld community library; and $150 can bring internet connectivity to a LitWorld community

To donate, click here.

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