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Monthly Archives: September 2018

Movie Crash Course: The Grand Illusion

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Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion bills itself as an “anti-war” film – so I was initially baffled at how…peaceful it was.  Later I realized that may have been the whole point.

It’s set during World War I and sees Jean Gabin (who we last saw in Pépé le Moko) as a French pilot who gets shot down while taking his commanding officer (Pierre Fresnay) on a recon mission.  The pair are sent to a series of different German POW camps, where they each participate in several escape attempts.  That’s pretty much it for the plot.

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But it still took me a good ten minutes to realize that they even were at war – because of how kindly and civilly they are treated by their captors. Erich von Stroheim is the German officer who shot down their plane (Stroheim is a familiar face from the silent era – seriously, this movie was like a retread of this blog), and we first see him leading a toast to his successful capture of our two leads.  But then he adds that if the prisoners are officers, they should be invited to lunch with the rest of the officers that afternoon.  Gabin and his C.O. turn up at the table, as ordered, where all the German officers go out of their way to treat them like welcome guests – Stroheim and Fresnay are aristocrats who already know each other from various diplomatic functions and spend most of the meal catching up, while the other German soldiers practice their French with Gabin and ask him about Paris.  One even cuts his meat for him when he says his arm was hurt in the capture.  It’s such a civil scene that I thought that the film was set during some unknown peacetime multi-national military drill training or something.

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The whole film has moments like that.  The German officers allow the French POWs to receive “care packages” from home, even though one officer is getting such lavish spreads that the POWs are eating better than the German sentries.  Another French captive has theater connections, and is able to requisition a bunch of costumes so the prisoners can all put on a play to entertain themselves.  Gabin lands in solitary confinement for a time, and when he kvetches to the German guard outside his cell about how bored he is, the guard gives him a harmonica. Stroheim is forced to shoot one of his prisoners as they’re making an escape attempt, but later visits him in the infirmary to apologize and talk about how bad he feels about it.

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It is the most genteel, civilized war film I’ve seen; the soldiers aren’t behaving like enemies, but rather like competitors in a sports match. If they weren’t at war they’d be taking each other out for drinks. Especially the higher-up officers – Stroheim and Fresnay’s characters have a lengthy conversation about the schools they both went to, chateaus they’ve both visited, and other mutual acquaintances before talking about what a shame it is that they have to be meeting under these circumstances instead of at a gala or an opera house or something.  There were only three moments when anyone was treated with anything resembling unkindness – and they were all cases when the prisoners were snarking at each other.  In one instance – when Gabin says something anti-Semitic to a Jewish fellow prisoner – Gabin even apologizes less than a minute later.

Ultimately, I think the arbitrary nature of this war was Renoir’s point.  The only reason these men are at war is because the leaders of their respective countries have decreed they do battle – and these same leaders are the only ones who seem to care about the reasons for battle. It’s only an accident of maps that pits these men against each other, and in some cases it’s only a sense of duty that is leading them to comply with their orders, and even so they’re only complying reluctantly.

Mind you, my own understanding of both history and human nature makes me skeptical about whether actual World War I prison camps were this civil. People in the throes of patriotic fervor can be cruel to outsiders. But – these same people often frequently have to be told who the outsiders are, who is a friend and who is a foe. And often it is our own political leaders who are making those kind of decisions, and sometimes the friend-or-foe ruling is similarly arbitrary.  Leave us all alone, Renoir seems to be arguing, and let us make up our own decisions based on common experience, and we’d probably all get along much better.


Movie Crash Course: Stella Dallas

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I admit to a bit of a prejudice against films like Stella Dallas that are all about the mother-daughter relationship.  Not for the reason you think, mind you – my mother and I get along fine.  But I also get on fine with a single and childless aunt, and I’m single and childless myself, and so are a good number of my friends.  There are vanishingly few films about the aunt-niece relationship (or the aunt-nephew one), or the godmother-goddaughter one, or the neighbor-lady-and-kid-who-mows-her-lawn one or suchlike; it’s always mother-daughter held up to this kind of adulation, and I’d just like to see the rest of us once in a while, you know?  ….so I went into Stella Dallas with girded loins, and discovered there at least was a little more going on.

Barbara Stanwyck is Stella, who’s the daughter of a Massachusetts millworker at the start of the story. She wants to move up the social ladder, though, and has been taking night school business courses to try to work her way up.  But when upper-class Stephen Dallas (John Boles) takes an executive job in the mill to get his mind off a broken engagement, Stella decides maybe she can take a shortcut by marrying up instead.  Stephen is surprisingly willing, and in fairly short order they have a baby girl, Laurel.

Both Stephen and Stella are crazy about Laurel – but within a year, they’re not so crazy about each other.  Stella is still the brash partier she always was, and rankles at Stephen’s efforts to calm her down.  But Stephen clearly took up with Stella as a rebound girl, and Stella would never be able to clean up enough for him anyway.  When Stephen gets a job offer in New York City, the pair agree to separate – Stephen will go to New York, and Stella will stay in Massachusetts.  Laurel also stays in Massachusetts, spending a few weeks each summer with Stephen.

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Things roll on smoothly enough until Laurel is in her teens.  She is a sensitive and compassionate young lady with her father’s epicurean taste, but with devotion to her mother’s care.  She befriends other upper-class students in her school, but when their parents find out who her mother is, they freeze her out.  She turns down a couple of invitations because Stella would be left alone if she said yes.

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Mother and daughter hit up a high-end resort during one sequence, and Stella turns heads with an elaborately tacky outfit that draws gales of laughter from Laurel’s friends (unaware that it’s Laurel’s mother they’re laughing at).  But instead of defending or confronting her, Laurel simply begs her mother to bring her home, so Stella is spared the knowledge that she was a laughingstock.  Stella nonetheless finds out, though, at about the same time she finds out that Stephen has been getting re-acquainted with his former fiancée Helen, now a widow with three sons, a huge inheritance, and the kind of class status she’d always wanted for Laurel. So when Stephen hints he’d like a divorce to marry his old fiancée, Stella shows up for a private meeting with Helen, as she’s had an idea how the situation could help Laurel…

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Maybe it’s because I’m not a mother, but I was most affected by Laurel.  It would have been all too easy to depict her as being embarrassed by her mother’s background – rankling at having to live in their cheap apartment, lashing out at her when friends didn’t want to come over, attacking her for dressing like a floozy at the resort.  But Laurel seems to see past that to her mothers’ soul; when Laurel’s friends make fun of Stella, Laurel wants them to leave for Stella’s sake.  Stella may be unpolished and unconventional, but – she’s also loving and devoted, and isn’t that just as important?

On the other hand, though, Laurel could also have responded to her friends’ teasing by defending Stella (“….That’s my mother, guys, so shove it”).  There’s a classism in the film that rubbed me the wrong way – because Laurel’s right, Stella may not have had the breeding and refinement of her peers’ parents, but breeding and refinement isn’t everything.   So what if she likes to go to movies instead of museums?  What’s wrong with that?  Well, actually, the movie implies a lot is wrong with that – there is a clear bright line between one’s breeding, the movie implies, and one’s worth as a person.  Stella believes that, anyway, and the movie goes along with it – so much so that when Laurel wants to still bring Stella with her into the rarefied upper class, Stella makes a desperate choice to stop her.

So ultimately the “self-sacrificing mother” tropes didn’t bother me as much as I thought – because I was distracted by some “lower class people are worth less” tropes that bothered me even more.

Movie Crash Course: Make Way For Tomorrow

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Several years ago, the directors Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich were having a conversation about the classic films Bogdanovich had been recently watching. One film, he told Welles, was new to him – Make Way For Tomorrow. “Oh my God!” Welles exclaimed.  “That’s the saddest movie ever made! It would make a stone cry!”

I mean, you kind of know what you’re getting into from the plot description. Lucy and Bark, an elderly couple with five grown children, lose their house in a foreclosure and appeal to their kids for help. Their kids all immediately say they will help, but the question is….how? No one seems to have the room to take both parents in, at least not right now, and gosh, they’d love to all chip in to help them find a smaller spot but they’re saving for their own kids’ college and have their own mortgages to keep up with and…you know how it is. The only child with space for them both is daughter Nellie, who asks for “just a few months” to talk her husband into it.  In the meantime, they decide, Lucy will move in with son George’s family in New York City 300 miles away, sharing a room with Lucy’s granddaughter Rhoda, and Bark will stay in town and move in with daughter Cora’s family, sleeping on the couch.  But this is only for now, everyone insists, while Nellie works things out with her husband.

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Nellie’s negotiations don’t go well, however, and Lucy and Bark are stuck with George and Cora for the time being, a burdensome fate for all involved. Lucy is a Country Mouse intimidated by New York, and stays indoors a lot.  George’s wife Anita is sympathetic, but Lucy being always underfoot and “trying to help” with household tasks causes friction. Rhoda is also unwilling to bring her friends to visit with Grandma Lucy always at the house and starts sneaking out with friends instead.  Bark’s not faring that well either – sleeping on the couch isn’t all that comfortable, and Cora is visibly frustrated with the whole situation, taking it out on Bark by treating him like a misbehaving child most of the time. Frustrations grow to the point that George starts investigating a nursing home for Lucy. As for Bark, he comes down with a cold, and Cora jumps on the chance to suggest that say, maybe he’d more comfortable living with their other daughter Addie in California?

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Now, this sounds a bit melodramatic and Lucy and Bark’s kids sound like jerks.  On the contrary – they are presented very sympathetically.  A lengthy scene sees Anita conducting a bridge class in the apartment one evening – something she does to help she and George make ends meet – and Lucy’s puttering around interrupts the class repeatedly, in one way or another. It’s excruciatingly uneasy – but you find yourself sympathizing with Anita.  Cora’s behavior is more overtly nasty – but it’s immediately clear that she has a much smaller house than her wealthier siblings, and has been obviously taken advantage of by the others.  Sure, she’s not handling it well, but at least you know her bitterness has a cause. The whole situation is simply one of those lose/lose cases where no one is going to end up happy, and no one is at fault.

The final sequence is where things really get devastating, though.  It’s all been settled that Bark will go to California, promising to send for Lucy to join him “when he can”, and Lucy – begging the others not to tell Bark – has agreed to move into the nursing home. Bark comes to New York for an afternoon with Lucy, and the pair are supposed rejoin the kids for a farewell dinner before George heads to the train station.  But as the afternoon wears on, Lucy and Bark reminisce about their honeymoon in New York 50 years prior – and spontaneously decide to blow off their kids and recreate that earlier youthful visit.  They locate the hotel they stayed at, have a drink at the same bar, and dance at the same club – trying to pack as much in as they can before Bark has to board his train, and the pair are parted, very likely forever. It’s the longest amount of time in the film that we see the couple as a couple, and we truly get to see them as a couple – riffing off all of the accumulated inside jokes, rehashing the same decades-old friendly arguments, touching down on 50 years’ worth of the same shared touchstones that have made a shared story now come to a sad final chapter.  I was especially struck when the pair exchange a kiss over dinner –it’s not a sweet little smooch, it’s a kiss probably very like one they shared when they were 50 years younger and newly married.  They may be older, but they are still lovers – and they are about to be parted.

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Adding to the power of that final act is the way that Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi (Bark and Lucy respectively) were playing their parts previously. Lucy and Bark are just this side of stereotype for the rest of the film – Lucy is saintly and long-suffering, flummoxed by modern technology and insisting she doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone, while Bark’s behavior during a doctor visit is 100% stereotypical “Grumpy Old Man”.  Bondi’s appearance throughout even bears a strong resemblance to the Looney Tunes “Granny” character.  So seeing all that fall away during the final act just drives home that these are people rather than just “a little old lady” or “a grumpy old man”.   And their previous moments aren’t even all that stereotypical anyway.  More like….old-fashioned.  Which makes sense.

I actually dragged my feet a bit on watching this, after reading the plot description – it sounded too depressing.  And while it is indeed sad – it’s not the maudlin, sentimental kind of sadness I was expecting, but something more tragic and inevitable.  And in today’s economically uncertain times, it is absolutely due for a remake.


Movie Crash Course: Pépé le Moko

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So you know that heist movie trope of the bank robbers pulling off their big score and then fleeing the country to hide out in some exotic faraway country, out of reach of the police?  Pépé le Moko is sort of about what happens a few years afterward, when the robbers start getting homesick.

Pépé (Jean Gabin) is a gangster from Paris who’s been laying low in Algiers for a while after a heist. Everyone knows he’s there – a team of Parisian gendarmes have even come to Algiers at the top of the movie to follow up with the local police in trying to find him.  But the problem is that Pépé has been hiding in the Casbah district, Algiers’ “old city” full of byzantine streets, houses with secret passages, and rooftop escape routes.  It’s also where Algiers’ original occupants live, along with a number of other poor immigrants and other criminals all too eager to help someone escape the clutches of the occupying French authorities; so every time they’ve tried catching him, one of Pépé’s neighbors help him escape. He’s also too smart to fall for any of the police’s efforts to lure him out of the district and into the open.

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Local Gendarme Inspector Slimane has somehow managed to befriend Pépé, even though Slimane is quite open with Pépé about his belief that they’ll catch him one day.  Pépé disagrees, of course, but seems to like Slimane anyway; trying to outsmart each other has almost become a game they play.

And Pépé seems to welcome it – because sticking to the Casbah is starting to get to him. He’s assembled a tidy little mob for himself amongst the other residents, running a small gambling den and committing petty theft here and there; he lives comfortably in a spacious apartment; he’s also regular girlfriend in Inez (Line Noro), a Romani drifter who’s settled in Algiers for now.  But not having the liberty to leave the Casbah is getting confining, and he finds himself thinking of France more and more often.

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His homesickness comes to a head when he meets Gaby (Mirelle Balin), a wealthy Parisienne visiting Algiers with her importer husband.  Gaby’s pretty much a trophy wife, and her husband is a stick-in-the-mud, so she ventures to the Casbah on her own. Her jewels are what catch Pépé’s eye first – his men see her as an easy target – but then he catches her eye, and they start talking, discovering that they both had a lot of the same haunts in Paris.  Gaby’s attracted to the younger, handsomer Pépé – but as for him, Gaby represents home, and he decides he somehow has to get there.  That is, if he can get past Slimane – who has been watching the whole situation unfold, and thinks he may finally have his chance to win their game.

There was a sequence early on I did not like at all, when the Algerian gendarmes are telling the visiting Parisian police about the Casbah itself, essentially going into detail about what a wretched hive of scum and villany it is. As they speak, we see scenes from the Casbah itself, with people going about their day.  But what the script tells us is dangerous looks…kinda cool, actually – twisty streets you can wander, ancient markets, and people from a staggering variety of nations, races, cultures, and creeds, all getting along and smilingly doing their thing as the narration implies how shady they all are.  The script reserves special scorn for the women – calling them slovenly, fat, immoral, and dirty, but all the accompanying clips simply show women going about their business.  Maybe they’re not as beautifully coiffed and dressed as Gaby is, but why is that a problem?….

Such was the attitude of the colonizing French, however, in the 1930s; it’s part of the world of the movie.   And it is almost instantly dropped – it’s clear that Pépé doesn’t see the Casbah that way, nor does anyone else we meet in the film (except Gaby’s husband, and he’s depicted as being a buffoon for it). Pépé likes the Casbah, and Inez, and everyone else there just fine.  He just wants to be free to leave it now and then is all.  A cleverly edited sequence shows Pépé making his way through the streets of the Casbah, but he’s as smartly dressed as if he were on the Champs-Élysées, and as he walks, the walls of the Casbah around him start turning into the side streets and alleys of Montmarte, the skyline of Algiers dissolving into that of Paris.  Moments like that made up for the early prejudice a little – and it underscored the weakness in Pépé that might lead to his downfall.

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Almost immediately upon its release, Pépé le Moko was optioned by a Hollywood producer for an English-language American remake called Algiers, with Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer.  Algiers’ director even went so far as to show Pépé le Moko to the cast, insisting that they copy the film exactly.  Boyer’s performance had an unexpected impact on the world of cartoons – the Warner Brothers character “Pépé le Pew” is based on his take on Pépé le Moko – but Algiers was otherwise unremarkable, and Pépé le Moko was the superior film.

(Repost) September’s Process

(This is a rerun of something I wrote in 2014.  I still have nothing more to add when it comes to my reaction to the anniversary of 9/11.)

Ask the farmer to transfer the tomatoes from their box to a bunch of bags. Wince as he packs the bags too full; they’ll crush easier. Carefully tuck them into the cart, and start home, wincing again as you hit each tiny rut and bump in the sidewalk.   Grab a bag of ice as you pass the deli on your street.  Wince again, and add a groan, when you get home and realize that what with the cart, the bags of tomatoes, and the ice, you’re going to have to make more than one trip up and down the four flights of stairs to your place.  Sigh and get to it.

My local farmers’ market has a “canners’ special” each year – a bushel of tomatoes, sold cheap to those wanting to put things up. I’ve been picking up a box every year since about 2011 – it seems to be just enough to last yearlong, with about a dozen cans of tomatoes and a couple jars of fresh tomato juice each time, and the process is messy and annoying enough that I only do want to do it once.

A few years ago I got into the habit of scheduling this ordeal for the anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks.

Clean out the sink first.  You’ll need an empty sink for the dishes after, and you’ll also need it for the ice water bath when you’re peeling the tomatoes.

Weigh out your tomatoes, laying them into little clusters on the dining room table – six pounds each. Save aside the ones that crushed on the way, to make tomato sauce and salsa to keep in the fridge right away.  Throw out the couple of fungus-y tomatoes that managed to sneak into the bushel.  Fetch enough empty jars from that top shelf in the kitchen, and dig through the pile of canning supplies trying to find enough lids.  Steal a couple from the teeny jars you have in the closet.

Dig out the big stock pot you got from your cousins 20 Christmases ago. Tuck in the first of your canning jars, and fill the whole thing, jars and all, with water.  Set that to boil while you dig out the other two big soup pots – fill one with water, and start that boiling while you fill up the sink and dump in part of the bag of ice.

Different cabinet now – dig out the big mixing bowl and balance a colander on top.  Shuffle the bowl and pans around on your counter while you’re waiting for all the water to boil.   It’s already getting hot.  Look at how many dishes this is already using.  Sigh.

Canning is just complicated and frustrating enough to lure me from the thoughts I’d otherwise have this day; it’s busywork, keeping me at a low level of distraction and giving me something else to be cranky at.  It also gives me an excuse to shut myself away from people.  But it’s not so intricate that I can’t recover if I do, despite myself, slip into memory.

I was in New York City that day; I was on “standby” with my temp agency, dressed and waiting just in case they got a last-minute call so they could send me right out.   So I was at home that morning, and I lived close enough to the Towers that I heard the impact of both planes as they hit.

The reason I was on standby, though, was because the day before I’d missed a call from my agency asking if I was available for something starting on the 11th.  By the time I called them back, they’d already given it to someone else.  It wasn’t until the evening of the 11th that I remembered that my agency had a lot of clients in the Twin Towers – so it was very possible that if I’d taken that job, I’d have been one of the people in the Towers that day.

Drop the first few tomatoes into the smaller pot of boiling water.  Realize you forgot to set a timer, curse and do so.  Wait.  Start madly scooping tomatoes into the sink ice bath when 30 seconds is (sort of) up.  Wait thirty more seconds – more or less – and grab a tomato from the sink, juggling it in your hands a little.  Still hot.  But the skin is fortunately slipping off.  Peel it over the colander and dig out the tough core with your fingers, dropping skin and seeds and tomato goodge into it as you do. Crush the meat in your hands and dump it into the second pot.

Notice, as you reach for a second tomato, that you’ve squirted juice onto the side of the fridge.  Swear.  Try to dig the peel off the second tomato.  This one’s more stubborn.  Swear again.  And then again when you squirt tomato down your shirt front.

Look at the remaining tomatoes in the sink, and then over at the 14 pounds you haven’t even gotten to yet.  Swear again.

Sometimes my not having been in the Towers feels like a copout.  We hear a lot from the First Responders and their families; the next of kin of the victims; the military.  We don’t hear as much about the experiences of the ordinary schlubs like me – people whose experience with 9/11 was only in coping with the city’s aftermath.  I didn’t know anyone in the Towers, I wasn’t there myself, no one I know died.  What’s my problem?

But even if no person I know died, the place was badly wounded.  For three months I tried to ignore the smell of smoke hanging over everything – the fire at Ground Zero was still going, and that meant that something was still fueling that fire, and I didn’t want to think too hard about just what that fuel may be.  I also tried to ignore the “Missing Person” posters that blanketed every single wall and bulletin board and lamppost with their futility.  And the shrines in front of each police precinct and firehouse, a small pile of dead flowers and burnt-out bodega candles clustered against the side of the building near a taped-up few pictures of smiling cops or firemen.  You saw these things ever once in a while before, of course, when one guy or another was killed in action.  But this time it was every precinct that had one, every fire house that had one.

The president and the mayor were trying to tell us all to go about our business and get back to normal.  But there were some long and lingering signs pointing to the fact that things were not normal.  Not at all.

The pot full of jars is boiling, so start simmering the crushed tomato on the stove and start fishing jars out of the pot, carefully dumping the water back in.  Dole a spoonful of citric acid and a spoon of salt into each jar.  Get the idea to tuck sprigs of oregano into a couple jars and clip some off your oregano plant in the window.

Ladle the tomato carefully into each jar.  Swear again when you overfill one and have to scoop some out.  Wipe all the jar rims.  Start to wipe the counter while you’re at it but then realize you’re just getting started so why bother.  Screw the lids on each jar, holding each one gingerly from the heat.  Grab each jar with the funky tong thingies you got just for canning jars, praying you don’t drop anything as you carefully lower them back into the still-boiling stock pot.

Set the timer for a half hour when the stock pot’s full.  Consider sitting down for a bit, but sigh and start peeling the next pile of tomatoes.

Even in the weeks immediately after the attacks, I found myself more angry at other Americans than I was at the attackers.  My friend Colin and I had a discussion shortly after, about “what would you do if Osama Bin Laden was in this room right now?”  And honestly, the most I would have done is smacked him like Cher did to Nic Cage in Moonstruck and asked, “what the hell was that?”  Even today, I can’t entirely escape the thought that Bin Laden and the attackers were not sane.  I would no more blame them for acting while under the influence of extreme religious fundamentalism than I would blame a rabid dog – neither knew any better.

However, our country did know better when we started a war under false pretenses with the wrong damn country, one which we are still fighting today.

Even worse are the politicians who preach platitudes about supporting the brave first responders who risked their lives during the attacks – but then turn around and cancel bills meant to give those first responders support for their health care.  Or the regular people online who blanket Facebook and Twitter and such every September 11th with Photoshopped pictures of the Twin Towers and eagles and flags and the “Never Forget” slogan in sparklefont – but then go back to slagging New Yorkers as “libtards” the very next day.  Both those camps are people who are exploiting the worst day of my life to make themselves look good to others, and I have very little patience for that.

The person I got the angriest at, though, was a man who came up to me on the street two days after the attacks.  I was standing near my neighborhood’s local mosque, and he was walking past and saw me there, came over to me, and nodding at the mosque, said, “so this is where the snake pit is, huh?”

Never before in my life have I been as angry as another person as I got at that man.  “This is a HOUSE of WORSHIP!” I roared at him.  “HOW DARE YOU!”

“It’s a SNAKE PIT!” he shouted back; but he was backing away from me.  We shouted back and forth at each other a few seconds more, him calling the mosque a snake pit and me scolding him for his prejudice; but he was backing away down the street and finally just ran off, driven off by my rage.

And it was pure rage. Rage which still comes faintly back to me when I write about that moment these many years later.

Carefully lift the processed jars out of the stock pot.  Worry at one that hisses a bit.  Check the lid; it’s a good seal.  Resolve to keep an eye on it anyway.  Top up the water and drop in the next round of jars.

Carry the jars over to the window by your oregano.  Linger there a few seconds each time you do, to catch the breeze for just a minute before returning to the hot kitchen.  Fiddle again with that jar you heard hissing.  Hear one of the jars clink in the stock pot and run back to make sure it didn’t break.

Food was one thing that helped me cope during those first few weeks.  Cat food, mostly.

I got into a bad headspace after a week; I didn’t have work right away, and so I was stuck with nothing to do, which left way too much time for me to let myself get caught up in endless mental rabbit-track loops replaying what had happened.  I’d either sit in my apartment in a weird fugue state, or do things like lock myself in my room and stay awake for 48 hours reading Lord Of The Rings cover to cover.

But while I was in a bad mental place, my cat Zach was not.  War or peace, political strife or good days – it was all the same to him.  All he cared about was food – Zach was an enormous glutton.  And two hours before his dinner, he would start asking after it, with his loud and strangely nasal “Miaou!”s.  In the weeks after the attack, his “Miaou!” was the only thing loud enough to finally pierce the voices in my own head, and rouse me to get up and off the couch and give him a scoop of kibble – and oh, wait, while I’m up I maybe should get a sandwich or something, shouldn’t I?….

And so while Zach ate and I numbly nibbled, I thought about how Zach didn’t care what had happened; all he cared about was that he was alive and he wanted to stay that way – and that I was alive, and it was my job to feed him.  I had a responsibility to keep him fed – and while I was at it, I had to keep me fed too.

I was alive, and I had to keep living for the people who couldn’t.

Chop the tomatoes that crushed on the way home.  Dump them into a Tupperware container with the not-enough-to-fill-a-jar tomato meat and stick it in the fridge to deal with later.   Mix up the skins and seeds in the colander with your hand to finish straining the juice.  Empty the colander into the trash.  Drop the colander in the trash as you do. Swear again.

Get that really big measuring cup and measure the juice from the bowl.  Just over two pints; dump the water out of the tomato bath pot and dump in the juice.  Bring that to a boil while you get two more jars.  This time it’s easier to fill the jars – it’s all juice.  Much more pourable.  Save the extra aside.  Seal those up too and set the juice jars inside the stock pot.   These get fifteen minutes; take a very deep breath, summon your courage and grab a paper towel to start finally wiping down the countertops and get going on the dishes. Pause halfway through to get a rocks glass from your “bar” in the living room.

Food was a place to start living again.

I’ve always been an active cook, but I picked it up after the attacks.  Especially the canning – it started as a whim, making jam and then liqueur, and then when I moved to Brooklyn I tried canning a couple pounds of tomatoes just to see if I could.

I now routinely make jam and applesauce and pickles every year, mainly just to cope with the bounty I get from a CSA; when I know I can’t eat something fast enough, it either gets canned or frozen.  I hate to waste things, so this kind of canning is more salvage; I’m stopping it from going bad so I can have it on hand to use in something.  Someday.  At some point.

Tomatoes are a little different – it’s the only thing I can as a planning-ahead thing.  I cook a lot of Cajun and Italian food, and tomato soup is one of my comfort foods, so tomatoes are a staple, and this is my big annual stocking-up.  I boasted to my mother once that I haven’t had to buy a can of Del Monte or Contadina from the supermarket in four years.

There’s also something comforting about that big stockpile; about opening the hall closet where I keep all my canned stuff, and seeing those jars stacked up.  It’s a bounty – the means to make a years’ worth of some of my favorite foods whenever I choose, and knowing that because these are really good tomatoes, it’s also going to be really good food.

But it’s also a promise and a commitment and a celebration.  It’s my own declaration that I’m still here, several years on, to eat those tomatoes.  And share them with others who are also here.  Canning on September 11th each year is my way of celebrating that I’m here, and signing on to stay here.

Bring the juice jars over to the windowsill, and finally turn off the stove.  Leave the last pot to soak, measure out a bit of vodka and dump that into the glass with the balance of the juice.  Forgive yourself for having to look up how to make a Bloody Mary.  Finish mixing it and bring it to the chair by the window with a heavy sigh.

Look at the jars of tomatoes.  Twelve of them this year, a neat row of jars with swirls of orangey-red. Twelve meals’ worth of future soups and chilis and jambalaya.

Think about jambalaya a moment, the play of the smoky Andouille and sweet pepper on your tongue.

Take a sip of your drink.  You overdid it with the vodka a tiny bit, but the blinding freshness of the tomato comes through.

Feel the breeze through the window, a relief after the hot kitchen.  Look out the window.  You’re looking east, so you can’t see the sun, but the sky is colored for sunset anyway, the blue tinging to pink and lavender.  Sip your drink again and look at the sky.

Then back inside to your home, one which you’ve filled with friends whom you’ve fed with tomatoes in years past.  Remember one meal, all of you sitting around the kitchen table and laughing.

Look back out at the sky again, thinking of them.  Thinking of life.

You are alive.


Movie Crash Course: A Day In The Country



A Day In The Country had an interesting childhood; and I mean that in a a couple senses of the word.

The film was written and directed by Jean Renoir; adapted from a short story by famed French writer Guy de Maupassant. And the film is short, much like its source material; a bourgeoisie and slightly silly family from Paris makes a day trip out to the country, stopping at a small village along the Seine, and a couple of the local bachelors lure the mother and daughter in the party away for a couple of hours of fooling around –which has an unexpected and lingering effect on the younger woman.

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With adaptations, I like to compare the original written version to the film adaptation when I can; it can be fascinating to see what the filmmaker changed or omitted.  With A Day In The Country, the original story had some very brief framing scenes set in Paris, one right before the party sets out and one a few months after the trip, when one of the guys from the country spontaneously visits Paris himself.  Both these scenes are absent from the film, and I honestly didn’t miss them.

But keeping things in the country seems to have been a happy accident – Renoir was originally going to include them but ran into so much bad weather during filming that it completely banjaxed the schedule, and he had to stop before finishing and move on to another film he’d already been hired for.  He always intended to finish shooting, but kept getting caught up in other projects, and after several years he finally had his assistants edit what he had into something, just to get it released.  A pair of intertitles in the film – one as a prologue, one as a transition – stand in for the scenes that would have been in Paris, and we are left with the scenes shot in the country.

But what scenes.

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As you may have suspected from the name, Renoir may have had a bit of an advantage – his father was Auguste Renoir, one of the titans of the Impressionist school of painting. Father and son had a good relationship, happily, and even though Jean went into a different art form, he was definitely influenced by his father’s eye.  Several shots almost look like they were inspired, by, if not copied from, Auguste Renoir’s paintings.

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Plenty of other shots are loving studies of the country’s natural beauty – waving trees, wind whispering through grass, rain speckling the face of a river.

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Focusing on the country also keeps the daughter’s story at the forefront.  From the very start she seems to be cut from a different cloth from the rest of the party – a sensitive soul, poetically enraptured by the natural world.  While her mother fusses about not wanting ants to crawl up her dress, she instead muses about the ants’ lives, wondering if they have the same kind of emotions as people.  The country fellow who ends up wooing her is similarly sensitive, and is similarly unprepared for the connection they end up making – and similarly unprepared for the consequences.

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At the time he shot A Day In The Country, Renoir was active with the French Communist Party, and much of his work from this time was devoted to sociopolitical dramas.  A Day In the Country was a break from this work – a look back at a quieter and more genteel time, with a reminder that “the old days” nevertheless still had their sorrows.

…Whither “WadsWords”?

I’m between movies at the moment, so just sharing some blog-ish-y related thoughts.

A few weeks back I announced that I was going to be moving all the movie content over to its own blog; I’m still a little ways off from that (I’mma get my photo taken for that blog, and the photographer has been having some technical issues), and I’ll probably have the movie content on both sites for the first month once that’s up, before making a full-on split.

But I’ve also intended to keep this blog.  I don’t have any dedicated “point” to WadsWords other than just “I….have thoughts sometimes”, and I think I want to keep it that way.  Writing was how I processed the world when I was a kid, it was how I explored who I was when I was in my 20s and 30s.  I had a really active LiveJournal back when that was a thing as well.  I started WadsWords to keep that going and showcase some of my professional work – but the professional work has fallen by the wayside (long story as to why).  I’m hoping that something comes of the  movie blog further down the road, but for now…it’s just a hell of a lot of fun, so I’m pursuing that.

But my life is not all movies, after all.  I’m becoming a much more educated movie buff, and have even started looking into cinema-studies classes for the layman to further explore that world. But – I also am interested in travel, craft, and food; I have thoughts on politics; I have personal goals I’m trying to get to.  I’m probably going to be movie-less this weekend, and the weather is going to be rainy anyway, so I may be looking at a weekend of tea and knitting and baking and honestly after a super-hot summer that sounds fantastic.  And I’m going to want to talk about stuff like that as well as movies.

So – in short, the movie stuff is moving somewhere else in a month or so, but there’s still going to be stuff here. Stick around if you want.