Sunday, October 25, 2009

Julie & Julia

Part II of my long-winded windiness on stuff I've seen or read recently.

I liked Julie & Julia, because I seem to be endlessly fascinated with any cultural work that comments on people and who/where/what they are in society. I don't care that it got good but not excellent reviews - neither did The Royal Tenenbaums, and yet that's one of my enduring cinematic favorites. Julie & Julia says a lot more about life throughout the 20th century - anyone remember that? I know it was a long time ago - than just two women in two different eras cooking the same food.

As with Aloft, I liked this movie for its details. The pizza shop in Queens (Queens pizza can be really, really delicious given how many native Italians live there). The 1920s shophouse that the pizzeria and apartment are in. I am fascinated by turn-of-the-century architecture, especially old brick buildings with concrete decorative roof thingies and deteriorating shophouses. Maybe because Taiwan has a myriad of them.

I, of course, soaked up the chance to sit in a theater and watch Meryl Streep act for 2 hours. Watching her is like listening to Bach, but better. You listen to Bach and you think, "That man was a genius". But he's gone now, so your experience is a bit disjointed; the music playing was written for another era, in another cultural milieu. Watching Streep act - well, that woman's a genius. And she's still around. In real-time or as close to it as movies get. Genius in our time. I love it. There aren't enough of those around in the arts these days; I can't name anyone, even in the modern genres of rock, rap and alternative music, who deserves the mantle of Bach. I do hope that in 300 years, Streep is considered one of the great actresses of performance history, even if by then movies have been replaced by, I dunno, holodecks.

The food itself looked fantastic - c'mon, butter! - though it's interesting to note how that was fine cuisine in the early '60s, and yet now, who eats Lobster Thermidor? Unless canned peaches on buttered toast count, who's seen a peach melba recently? I'm no professional chef, probably not even as good as Julie Powell, though I can cook. Yet you won't find me roasting chickens or browning veal and mushrooms; I'm more likely to be cooking bubbling rounds of injera, stirring a pot of channa masala or cramming cubes of Turkish-spiced lamb onto kebab skewers. That's today's adventurous cook and today's lover of the kitchen, and while I know Julia Child studied Chinese cooking (at least some regional forms of it), I bet she couldn't make Kyrgyzstani bread or silky-smooth roasted garlic-tacular hummus - or rather, she could've if she'd learned to. As I said to Brendan during the part of the movie where Paul calls Julia the "butter to his bread", he's the "garlic to my garlic".

I enjoyed the commentary on the changing roles of women; more movies need to take this into account. Julia Child was in her prime during a time when women stayed home - not necessarily because they wanted to (which I respect), but also because they often had to if they wanted to be accepted in any way (which makes me deeply uncomfortable - nobody should have such a major life choice made for them). As such, Julia could attend a famous cooking school and spend all of her time perfecting what started as a hobby without impacting a career or marriage. Women today don't have that luxury, and yet the subtle commentary on what that privilege cost the women of Julia's generation (when she was born, women couldn't vote, and few had careers) was not lost, at least not on me. Parallel that with what near-equality in the workplace and at home and the chance to speak out and have anything you care to go after costs the women of my generation; we can no longer pursue any of the great arts - be they visual, musical or culinary - at our leisure, or even in our stressed-out-frazzled-"free"-time. Then again, that's always been the lot of men, back when society was segregated: unless they were professionals, you didn't see men in the kitchen cooking for "fun", nor did you see them taking up hobbies to any serious degree.

As someone who has several hobbies - learning Chinese, drawing, photography, writing - all of which she'd like to take to the level that Julia Child took her cooking, I'm not sure what to say about that except "eugh", and maybe "blah".

I noticed the thoughtful change around the end of the 50s to the mid-60s in the workplaces we saw - in 1948-1952, you saw diplomatic housewives in Paris learning millinery, and yet in the mid '60s the movie portrayed several women in career positions.

That's one thing that struck me: sure, the movie portrayal of Julie Powell is somewhat narcissistic, though I wouldn't say bitchy. But while she may not have had the formidable personal charm of Julia Child, she really is not a bad person at all. She's thoughtful. It's not that she "doesn't deserve" her sainted husband, as she wrote, it's that Julia had time to do what she did and people with cubicle jobs, well, don't. Julia, it should be noted, also had the money to do what she did. Imagine the strain put on the finances of a couple who has to live above a pizzeria in Queens, paying for all of those fine ingredients.

Another point that I took home - something I also noticed in Aloft - a commentary on people of earlier generations being able to get in the thick of it, where our own generation seems disconnected and floating, reaching out online, terrified of dirty hands, cringeing at boning a duck or laying out sod. You see Julia Child sweating; as one critic said, who has ever seen Rachael Ray so much as pad a hanky across her forehead? (I'm proud to say that of this I am not afraid: my hands are covered in curry, animal fat, garlic, melted chocolate and butter grease so often that I wonder how they'll look as I age).

I loved the subtle notes on appearances - this great woman was over six feet tall and while the Meryl Streep version of her was quite pretty, Julia herself was not. Her sister, who married exactly the person nobody thought she would. Contrast that with the beauty required for (most) celebrity these days. I don't know what the real Julie Powell looks like, but Amy Adams is gorgeous. There's hardly any such thing as making it big, doing something great, being in the public eye, being female and not being beautiful anymore. That standard still does not seem to apply to men - though it's starting to. That's not really fair to either gender, though it may be human nature.

Two things that I did not like - despite mentioning that it's happening and two unflattering stomach shots, Amy Adams' Julie Powell at no point gets fat. I'm sorry, but as a woman who loves food, loves cooking and loves eating, and yet tries very hard to eat well (and I do eat well, though maybe not in a way conducive to a slim physique), and struggles with her weight, it is just not possible unless you have the magical metabolism of #$@&ing Superwoman on f@#$^&*ing diet pills or have bulimia or both to eat that much butter and not get fat in a year. We're talking 20-40 pounds fat. It is not fair to women who do gain weight to have a movie where this is not accurately portrayed. Julia Child, while not obese, looked like she ate the food she cooked. I respect that. Amy Adams? Not so much.

Side rant: what is up with people who say they love to see women who eat well, enjoy their food, and don't just 'order the salad', and yet have unrealistic, laughable expectations of the slender bodies those women ought to have? Movies where people eat food soaked in butter for a year and yet don't get fat may have something to do with this ridonkulous standard. I don't know.

Also, the cat didn't look realistic.

More things I did like - commentary on the demoralizing nature of cubicle life - I escaped that beast long ago - and subtle jibes at Republicans. Well, maybe they shouldn't be trashing all Republicans (as Brendan constantly reminds me, Olympia Snowe is one, and she's a very good, and rational, legislator). I respect the ones who are economically conservative but are willing to back that up with a true belief in small government without going so far as to be libertarian, which is just not realistic. I don't agree, but I respect the viewpoint. I do not respect the ones who bang on about family values, or say they want small government and then want the government to regulate one's personal life (religion, abortion, marriage rights, education, you name it) in some ways while dropping the ball in others (smoking, gun ownership, environmental consciousness, health).

I liked the undercurrent of marriage and sacrifice - Julie Powell clearly did not want to live in Queens but did it for her husband. By the end, her husband was clearly sick of her project and yet, during their worst fight, never told her outright to stop. Hooray for life lessons as Brendan and I prepare to become Married People!

1 comment:

joanh said...

ahh.. i totally agree with on the point that society wants women to eat heartily (not just the salad) but then they also want us to be stick skinny. it's definitely impossible, at least for me.. i've definitely gained weight since "appreciating" food here- didn't consciously think about how that would affect julie's appearance in the movie since she is also cooking for others, but you're right.