Technically, Caillebotte wasn’t an Impressionist, although he was friends with many of them. He was much more of a realist and much more interested in the daily life of Paris. He liked taking people going about their routine business as his subject. Here’s another of my favorites, The House Painters.
But it turns out Caillebotte wasn’t a professional painter, at any rate not in the sense his friends Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro and Cezanne were. That is, he didn’t make his living with his brush because he didn’t need to make a living. He was a rich man’s son---his father made his fortune outfitting and equipping Napoleon’s army---and he used his money to feed his painter friends, buy their paintings, and front them money when they were broke.
In Caillebotte's paintings, men leaning on new bridges seem engulfed by steel girders. Others stand on balconies, looking down at the Boulevard Haussmann — above, yet somehow dwarfed by, the street.
"Modern life doesn't create close relations between human beings," Garnot says. "You are [in] complete loneliness in these new buildings, new avenues, new boulevards. There's something quite sad about that."
Caillebotte's contemporaries — Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Pissaro — also put this "modern" Paris in their paintings. But theirs is a Paris peopled by happy dancers, or sociable boaters, or busy shoppers, or flag-waving parade marchers.
"They just wanted to show pleasant persons or fun activities," Garnot says, "not the kind of loneliness that you find [in Caillebotte.]"
Makes him sound like a 19th Century Parisian avatar of Edward Hopper, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, here’s a fun video from the Art Institute of Chicago in which Faye Wrubel, the Art Institute’s conservator of paintings describes and demonstrates her work restoring Paris Street, Rainy Day.
Good to see Tim Robbins back at work and doesn’t he look wonderfully sleazy? And I’m hoping this is another sign Jennifer Aniston has finished with her string of Watch Another Leading Man Fall Madly in Love With Me, Brad Pitt movies and gone back to acting.
Life of Crime’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, which is the prequel to Rum Punch, the Leonard novel Jackie Brown’s based on (Technically, it’s the other way round. The Switch was published first, so Rum Punch is the sequel.), which makes Life of Crime a prequel to Jackie Brown with Mos Def (starring in this one under his real name, Yasiin Bey), John Hawkes, and Isla Fisher are playing the characters Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda played in Jackie Brown. Director and screenwriter Daniel Schechter has set the bar pretty high for himself, since, along with Get Shorty and Out of Sight,Jackie Brown is one of the only three truly good adaptations of Leonard’s novels. Crime novels. Hombre is a fine adaptation of Hombre and a good Western in its own right, and some people like Valdez is Coming(I’ve never read the book.) Three-Ten to Yuma has been made into two good movies, although, if you want to get particular about it, it’s not a novel but a short(ish) story, the 1957 Glenn Ford-Van Heflin version somewhat better than the Russell Crowe-Christian Bale version. And…movie adaptations. Justified is the best of the best, but then it’s long since transcended its beginnings as an adaptation and even its connection to Leonard to become its own, great thing.
Just about every shot in the trailer for Wild perfectly evokes a scene or image from the book it’s based on, Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir of a thousand mile plus hike she took in 1995 when she was twenty-six to cure herself of grief, heartbreak, and various addictions, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. That doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be a good movie. Sometimes movies based on books can be too faithful to their originals. But it’s a reminder of what a terrific book it is.
I walked all day, falling and skidding and trudging along, bracing so hard with my ski pole that my hand blistered. I switched to the other hand and it blistered too. Around every bend and over every ridge and on the other side of every meadow I hoped there would be no more snow. But there was always more snow amid the occasional patches where the ground was visible. Is that the [trail]? I’d wonder when I saw the actual ground. I could never be certain…
I sweated as I hiked, the whole backside of me wet where my pack covered my body, regardless of the temperature or what clothing I wore. When I stopped, I began shivering within minutes, my wet clothes suddenly icy cold. My muscles had at last begun to adjust to the demands of long-distance hiking, but now new demands were placed on them., and not only to brace myself in the constant effort to stay upright. If the ground upon which I was walking was on a slope, I had to chop out each step in order to get my footing, lest I slip down the mountain and crash inot the rocks and the bushes and trees below, or worse, go sailing over the edge. Methodically, I kicked into the snow’s icy crust, making footholds step-by-step…With all the kicking and bracing, my feet blistered in new places as well as in all the old places that had blistered back in my first days of hiking, the flesh on my hips and shoulders rubbed raw by [the straps of my pack].
The Mets radio announcers were talking about the 1973 pennant-winning season. They recalled that the Mets were in worse shape at this same point that year. Arguably.
There were only the two divisions, no inter-league play, so the Mets had more chances against their division rivals, and it was an embarrassingly weak division. The Mets were the only team to finish above .500 and they did it barely, at .509, going 82 and 79, still the worst record in baseball history for a pennant-winning team. (They played only 161 games. There must have been a rainout they didn’t need to make up to decide the division winner.) Over in the West, the fourth place Astros won more games than every team in the East except the Mets whom they tied in wins. (They lost one more, having played all 162 games.) And besides having McGraw as their ace reliever, the pitchers he relieved included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. Seaver won 19 and lost 10, a .665 winning percentage. He led the league in strikeouts with 251 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.08!
Probably more accurate to say the A’s took the Mets to a seventh game. The Mets were up 3 to 2 after 5.
Anyway, I’m not ready to believe this season. But it's still fun when this team gets its act together, and imagine what things would be like if Harvey was healthy, which he will be next year, and that's where my hopes lie.
That’s the title of a section in my new Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Emberizine Sparrows and Their Allies. I like that. I like the idea of sparrows having allies. I’m picturing those small, feisty birds gathering their armies against hawks and cats and other members of what sparrows would regard as the Axis of Evil.
Emberizine sparrows, Sibley informs me, are “a large group [consisting] mostly small,streaked brownish birds of grassy and brushy areas” and they include rufous-sided towhees and dark-eyed juncos, neither of which are brownish birds, along with all sorts of sparrows---chipping sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, Lincoln’s sparrows, Vesper sparrows, swamp sparrows, field sparrows, salt-marsh sparrows, seaside sparrows, but not…sparrows.
Not the sparrows you’re probably used to, at any rate, the fussy, restless, chattering sparrows flocking noisily in bushes and small trees and agitating the branches with their nervous inability to settle down, the huffy little birds pecking in the gutters of houses, kicking up the leaf litter on lawns, taking over the sidewalks in roving gangs that scatter ahead of you as you approach only to regroup just a few yards straight ahead where when you catch up with them they’ll repeat the process, stirring up trouble in front of park benches and under the tables of outdoor cafes, those sparrows.
Those sparrows are house sparrows and Sibley places them in a group called Finches and Old World Sparrows. Old World as in Europe. House sparrows, which are sometimes called English sparrows, are descended from birds brought here in the middle of the 19th Century to be sold as pets. Somehow a flock of them was let loose in Central Park in 1850 and the breed has been busily increasing and multiplying ever since.
The house sparrows have been making a lot of noise and commotion around here the last couple of days. I’m watching a flock of them now from the front porch, furiously chasing each other back and forth between our bushes and our neighbor’s trees and feeders. They seem to be in a real tizzy. When I watched them at it yesterday I mused out loud, “Must be Sparrows Get Laid Day.” But then I realized that probably something far more wholesome was going on, a big family outing as fledglings tried out their wings and got lessons in avoiding cats and hawks from their scolding parents.
I like this bit from Sibley’s brief on house sparrows: “avidly seeks out handouts such as bread crumbs and french fries at parks and parking lots.”
House sparrows are city, town, and farm dwelling birds but they like to get out and around. I see them irregularly and, to me, incongruously on the beaches on around Chatham where they swoop down from the aspens and beach plums in behind the dunes when the seagulls aren’t looking to forage in the strings of sea grass left behind by the retreating tide. Beach bum birds.
The sparrows I more used to seeing down at the Cape are members of the Emberizine sparrows and their allies. Song sparrows. You don’t see them on the beach. They prefer to sit on telephone wires and sing all day long from there. They’re called song sparrows because compared to most other sparrows their calls are musical, but they really don’t have much in the way of a song. My Audubon Guide renders it as Madge-Madge-Madge, put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle. Sibley offers a prosaic and phonetic seet seet seet to zleeeeeee tipo zeet zeet. Over and over again. But it’s sung from the heart and I love them for it.
Put in a call this morning to Steve Kuusisto up in the wilds of Syracuse to find out how he’s doing and what’s going on in his world these days. He’s doing fine, he reported in answer to the first question, and Nothing, nothing’s going on, he said to the second. “My life is boring. I’m boring.”
He was being hard on himself. Steve’s writing a memoir about his first guide dog, Corky, and he’s been working away at it doggedly. (Sometimes I just crack myself up.) Every day he gets up, walks the dogs, Nila and Harley, has a fortifying breakfast, and heads downstairs to his basement office to write. He types away until lunchtime, climbs the stairs to the kitchen, makes himself a sandwich, plays with the dogs, then returns to his desk for another couple of hours. “Boring. Boring, boring, boring.”
“Boring can be good,” I said, “Boring is maybe what you want.” And I told him how for the last twenty pages of the biography of John Updike I’m reading, Updike had been boring in the exact same way as he scribbled away at what would become Rabbit, Run. I wasn’t sure if dogs figured in Updike’s daily routine but otherwise it was just like Steve’s.
“But,” I said warningly, “He’s about to become un-boring. He’s not working at home anymore. He’s rented a little office in downtown Ipswich and he’s about to start doing research for Couples.”
I was referring, of course, to the serial adulteries that will soon wreck his marriage. Alongside the biography, I’ve been reading some of Updike’s fiction and poetry and, as it happened, yesterday, I’d just read the first chapter of Couples where he introduces the character I immediately identified as Research Subject Number 1, Angela Hanema:
“What did you make of the new couple?”
The Hanemas, Piet and Angela were undressing. Their bedchamber was a low-ceilinged Colonial room whose woodwork was painted the shade of off-white commercially called eggshell. A spring midnight pressed on the cold windows.
“Oh,” Angela answered vaguely, “They seemed young.” She was a fair soft brown-haired woman, thirty-four, going heavy in her haunches and waist yet with a girl’s fine hard ankles and a girl’s tentative way of moving, as if the pure air were loosely packed with obstructing cloths. Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands, their stringy backs and reddened fingertips.
First, “bedchamber”, Mr Updike? I’ll let that one slide because I’ve been in that room.
Second, did you notice how he follows up the deliberate banal but exact detail about the color of the woodwork with the impressionistic description of the time and weather, the spring midnight pressing on the cold windows? One of Updike’s best tricks. He does the trick in reverse at the end of his description of Angela.
Third, he knows that woman’s body too well.
At any rate, I didn’t quote that passage to Steve but I gave him the gist.
“So, see,” I concluded, “Boring is a good thing.”
Steve seemed to find that reassuring and after we spent some time lamenting the sorry state of the Red Sox we said goodbye and he diligently went back to being boring.
You can check on how dogged, diligent, and un-boring Steve’s being with his actual writing about Corky at his blog, Planet of the Blind.
They don’t need your permission to be young and beautiful and full of the joy of life.
Another grouchy middle-aged man.
This morning’s errands took me up to the little college town north of here where---a not unusual phenomenon this time of year---in the space of one block I passed four attractive young women dressed down for summer in their own particular ways, two in summer dresses on their way to class, one in gym shorts and a t-shirt cooling down from a run, and one in a camisole top out walking her dog.
Honest to God, I’m convinced this is the difference between me and many conservative men my age.
I see what I saw this morning and I think, Wow, does this take me back!
And then I drive on, enjoying my memories.
They see it and think, I want that! Then, I can’t have it! I’m too old and too foolish and can’t meet their standards or demands! Those sluts! How dare they? How dare they so obviously enjoy being themselves without caring what effect it has on men like me! How dare they make me want what I can’t have! How dare they make me feel old, and foolish, and inadequate!
Men my age? Men twenty, even thirty years younger.
Corporatist Right: To the overworked, the underpaid, the unemployed, to the deeply in debt; to the old, to the sick, to the poor, and the unlucky; to women who aren’t our wives, our daughters, or partners in our businesses; to anyone struggling in this rotten economy that we brought about for our benefit, enrichment, and aggrandizement: It’s your own fault for not listening to us back in the 80s when we told you we planned to get our hands on all the money. We meant it when we said “We want it all, and we want it now!” Now fork over what’s left or you’ll find out how really hard we can make it for it you. Oh what the hell. We’ll just take what’s left and make you miserable anyway, just to teach you.
Tea Party Right: Oh kind corporatists, please notice how we’re trying to punish and make miserable all of thosepeople you don’t like and reward us by making us rich too or at least by leaving us and our money alone.
Religious Right: Life is supposed to be hard, so we like it when you two make it harder. For them. Us and our money you can leave alone, because we’re saved and deserve to be rewarded here on earth. But while you’re at it, can you ship a few pieces of silver our way? Like we said, we’re saved so we should get some of it too as the Good Lord pre-ordained.
Actually, some of Wallach’s best acting was done in guest shots on TV shows. On an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip he played a enigmatic old coot who might be a famous TV writer blackballed during the McCarthy era. Mostly all he does is sit and tell stories from the early days of television in monologues that sounded like Aaron Sorkin giving notes to himself on what he needed to do to fix his own show, notes, sadly, he didn’t act upon.
My favorite guest starring role was on Naked City in which he played a cop who might be dirty, might in fact be a murder---“might be” could qualify most of Wallach’s performances. You never could be sure with him. When he was playing a bad guy, you didn’t know how much good was lurking inside; when he was playing a good or at least sympathetic guy, you didn’t know how long the good or the sympathy would last. It was that wolfish grin, full of charm, humor, and menace all all together.
That episode was also notable for Wallach’s gunning down a very young Peter Falk before Falk could utter a line.
Vamos, amigos, on over to Sheila’s ranchero, The Sheila Variations, and read the whole post, R.I.P. Eli Wallach.
Morning grocery run. 8:15 AM. 67 degrees. Gorgeous mix of sun and shadow on the road, blue sky and green leaves overhead and up ahead. Bit too chilly to ride with the windows open. Opened them wide anyway.
Once upon a time, and not a very long time ago it was, the Catholic Church had what was known as the Index. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum.The List of Prohibited Books. It was still around when I was little kid. It was what it sounds like, a list of heretical, obscene, and otherwise damnable books good Catholics weren’t to read if they valued their immortal souls. At one point, if you were caught reading any of them, it earned you a visit from the Inquisition, but later it just got you sent to hell. I think that’s how it worked. I don’t recall the nuns giving it much attention in religious ed or church history classes at good old St H’s.
There was something similar for movies. It might have been connected to the Index, but like I said, I don’t remember the details. I do remember the diocesan newspaper publishing a list every week of movies rated according to how much time in Purgatory watching them would get you. There were some movies that could get you sent to hell if you didn’t go to Confession right after the credits rolled. I think The Godfather was one of those. That’s how I remember it at any rate. More likely it was intended as a helpful guide for Catholics who wanted to know how much temptation they were leading themselves into by going to see Ryan’s Daughter, which featured nudity and extra-marital sex but also a heroic priest in the person of Trevor Howard. Also, the English Protestants were the bad guys.
I’m pretty sure the Church still does this, preview movies for the anxious faithful, but the focus seems to be on identifying movies the Church can approve of and, it turns out, the Church is unpredictable in its tastes. A few years ago the Vatican newspaper declared The Blues Brothersa movie good Catholics can enjoy without guilt. ‘A Catholic classic,” in fact.
But here’s a question for the Hobby Lobby folks and the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court: If something like the Index was still in effect, would the devout Catholic owners of a “closely-held” business be able to tell their employees they couldn’t spend the money from their paychecks to buy tickets for movies deemed indecent by the Church or rent the DVDs or stream them Amazon or Netflix?
Probably even members of the Green family would answer Of course not, recognizing both the costly impracticability of enforcing this and the unconscionable intrusiveness.
Besides, they might add, it’s the employees’ money. It’s their right to decide how to spend it. If they want to risk their immortal souls watching Nymphomaniac Volume: I and Nymphomaniac: Volume II, that’s their business.
Ok. Then why isn’t it your employees’ business if they want to spend their money on contraceptives or even on abortions?
Who says it isn’t?
You do. The Supreme Court does.
You’re talking about health insurance?
That’s our money!
Ah ha! Thank you!
You’ve cut to the chase!
You’ve taken us straight to the point of this post.
That wasn’t our doing. You’re inventing this dialog. We’re fictional characters in a story you’re telling, and, by the way, we suspect you’re using us to work your way to a straw man argument.
As far as I can tell from the way the term’s used around the internet, a straw man is any version of myself, my side, or my position that I find inaccurate, unflattering, or, more usually, hits too close to home. Now, mind if I get on with this?
Like we can stop you.
Thank you. How? How is health insurance different? Isn’t it part of the compensation you pay your employees? People don’t work just for what’s in a paycheck. They work for that and benefits. Their actual pay includes the cash plus paid vacations, sick days, parental and family leave, etc. and what goes into their pension funds or 401k’s.
(I won’t get into the sad fact that too many American workers have jobs that pay very little if anything more than what’s in their paychecks.)
Health care premiums are like contributions to 401k’s. It’s money you pay your employees indirectly.
401k’s are money deferred. With health insurance, you’re taking some of the money that could go into workers’ paychecks and forking it over to the insurance company on their behalf.
And you aren’t doing this out of the goodness of your corporate but closely-held hearts. You’re doing it because it allows you to pay them less than you would have to if you had to put in their paychecks what it would cost them to buy insurance on their own. And you get a tax-break for it.
It’s self-interested, mutually beneficial creative accounting not charity.
But clearly you don’t think of health insurance as something employees earn and are therefore owed but something they’re lucky to be given. You see it as a gift and, as far as you’re concerned, they should be grateful for your generosity and not bitch and moan because the gift comes with strings attached.
Can we say something?
No, I think your usefulness as a rhetorical device is done. Besides I’m not just talking to just you anymore.
Oh, who are your lucky sox puppets now?
You, Eden Foods, Wheaton College, all the businesses, for profit and non-, closely-held and “closely-held”, who are going to use the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Thursday’s expansion to assert a right to prevent their female employees from using part of their compensation for something you disapprove of, which is, specifically, have sex without intending it to lead to bearing babies, and the conservative Justices on the Court, particularly the liar Sam Alito, who’ve handed you this “right”.
No. That’s not it at all. The Court merely affirmed rights we already have under the First Amendment. It’s called Freedom of Religion. We thought you liberals are all for that. Or is it only when the religion is practiced by your favorite weirdos like witches and mushroom popping Indians and Muslims who want to impose Sharia Law and…Wait! We didn’t mean that about weirdos. Stop making us sound like callers to Right Wing talk radio shows!
He he he.
It’s not fair!
Oh. All right. Tell us in your own words.
Sorry. Go on.
The point is, you liberals claim to be so tolerant and yet…
Tolerance is not a passive virtue. Tolerance by definition opposes intolerance. And it’s just one of our virtues. We also believe in fair play.
And we don’t?
Look at what you’re up to.
Exactly what I said. Using your control of their money to try to force women of child-bearing age to choose between working for you and having non-procreative sex even if they’re married and even if the reason they’re choosing not to get pregnant at this time is that it would be detrimental to their health and their family’s well-being.
What about what we are being told we ought to be forced to do?
That’s the “abortifacient” dodge again.
It’s not a dodge.
Sure it is. Your attorneys used it as a foot in the door. What Alito did yesterday is take the opportunity you provided to expand the ruling to include all contraceptives. But, while we’re at if. First, the contraceptive methods you objected to are not abortifacients.
Medical science. Doctors! Second, you’re still arguing as if it’s your money. Third, as for religious freedom and what liberals are supposed to believe, I’ll let Scott Lemieux handle that.
You’re not going to write his words for him?
No, he’s pretty good with the words on his own, plus I agree with him and I don’t need him as a rhetorical device but as authoritative support. Here’s what he wrote at Lawyers, Guns & Money the other day:
This [Who would bear the greater burden in an attempt to balance the conflicting rights of individuals against each other?] is both possibly the most important question and where the case for Hobby Lobby really collapses. I agree that liberals should in some cases accommodate religious belief where doing so doesn’t burden third parties. If there are two people working in pharmacy and one opposes Plan B on religious grounds, having the employee who doesn’t object fill the prescription makes sense. If this creates a de minimis burden on a third party — say, waiting an extra five minutes — that’s fine. If this means a substantial burden for the customer — say, waiting until tomorrow — then the employee should fulfill the prescription irrespective of her religious conscience.
In the case of the contraceptive requirement, the burden on third parties is clear, direct, and material. Employees will be denied a something they worked for and are entitled to under federal law without being compensated for the denial. The burden on employers, conversely, is so abstract and attenuated it’s hard to even explain what it is. The Greens are not required to use contraception or advocate the use of contraception. They are not making the decision about what insurance should cover, and they are not making any employee’s decision to use contraceptives (which, as Ginsburg’s dissent observed, is an autonomous choice of a woman and her doctor.)
When a clash of interests presents a substantial burden against a trivial one, it seems obvious that all things being equal the claims of the former should prevail.
Back to me. The "burden" on you, and I’m talking to the whole pack of you, employers who are going to deny their female employees the right to use their pay in a way they decide is best for them, is that you have to worry you might go to hell for not stopping them from having sex without getting pregnant. So in fact in order to exercise your religious freedom you must interfere in the personal lives of your employees. As far as you’re concerned, fear of an imaginary after-life and imaginary sin trumps real people's real health and well-being.
We resent that! Our sincerely-held beliefs are not “imaginary!”
Of course they are. Faith in things unseen requires a leap of imagination. Any saint worth his or her halo will tell you that.
But it’s not your whole faith that’s being challenged here, is it?
No, it’s just one small aspect of it, one that not even a majority of Christians adhere to anymore, if they ever really did, that from the ages of say about 14 until 44 or so, a woman’s main if not sole purpose in life is to be a baby-making machine.
We never said----
You don’t have to say it. It’s implicit. It’s inseparable from the fantasy that a zygote is a person whose “right to life” supersedes that of the woman carrying it. And even if you’ve never said it out loud yourselves, plenty of your fellow “Christians” have been happy to assert it.
Are you about done?
I’m getting there. And I could get there faster if you’d stop interrupting. Why are you still talking anyway? I told you, your usefulness as a rhetorical device ended a dozen paragraphs ago.
Oh. Right. Sorry. Never mind. Here goes.
What you, and again I mean all you anti-choice Christian bosses, the real you and, you know, “you”, are doing, effectively and I believe intentionally, is assuming the right to tell women, all women, not just the ones who work for your company, those are just the ones you see yourselves as having direct control over, but you know your collective actions add up and you’re counting on that, when they can make love, which is only when they are married, doing it with their husbands, and doing it to get pregnant then and there.
You are usurping their right to decide whether and when they’ll bear children.
And you are using their money to do it!
But you don’t think it’s their money, and the Supreme Court has agreed with you, so here’s my question.
Do we get to answer it for ourselves?
What do you think?
Unh uh! Remember you’re good Christians.
Ask your question.
It’s series of questions, actually?
Ok. So, let’s say it’s your money? Isn’t the money in their paychecks your money as well?
Don’t bother. If the money you pay on their behalf to the insurance company is your money so is all the other money you pay them. And if so, then let me ask you this.
If they can’t use their insurance to pay for contraceptives and abortions and they need and want them, don’t you think they’ll use the money in their paychecks to pay for them instead?
No perhaps about it. They will. Or some of them will. Some of them will quit. Some of them will have sex, get pregnant, and suffer for it physically, emotionally, financially, and psychologically, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing your souls remain spotless and that the ones who die from complications that were predictable and inevitable will go straight to heaven, thanks to you.
You’re making us sound heartless and evil.
A religion that requires you to cause others to suffer is evil, but let’s not get into that.
If you have the right to stop them from spending “your” money on contraceptives one way, don’t you have the right to stop them from spending it on them another?
And how in God’s name could we do that?
Ask them what?
How many children they have. Why they don’t have more or any. That’s if they’re married. Ask single women if they’re dating anyone or living with someone. Ask them if they intend to get married. If they plan to have children. Ask if they’re Christians of your ilk. Ask if they go to church. Hire only women who give the right answers.
That sounds incredibly intrusive and probably against the law.
Get the laws changed. You just did it with the Supreme Court’s decision. So you know the Court’s sympathetic. Just tell them again how it’s necessary to your freedom to practice your sincerely-held beliefs. And there are over twenty state legislatures crazy enough, angry enough, and fanatical enough to go along. Some of them have mandated trans-vaginal ultra-sounds for women seeking abortions. You think they’re going to think asking a few innocent questions is intrusive?
So we ask? What’s to make them tell us the truth?
The fact that you’re checking up on them.
How would we do that?
Ask their co-workers. Send people to their homes to snoop.
We can’t do that!
Why not? It worked for Henry Ford.
In 1914, Ford not only introduced the eight-hour day and the forty-hour week but also doubled average salaries to $5 a day in what is often presented as an act of revolutionary magnanimity. In fact, the wage increase was necessitated by the costly waste of high employee turnover---a breathtaking 370 per cent in 1913. At the same time, For established the notorious Sociological Department, employing some two hundred investigators who were empowered to look into every aspect of employees’ private lives---their diet, hygiene, religion, personal finances, recreational habits, and morals. Ford’s workforce was full of immigrants---in some periods as many of two-thirds of his employees were from abroad---and Ford genuinely wished to help them live healthier, more satisfying lives, so his sociological meddling was by no means entirely a bad thing. However, there was almost nothing Henry Ford did that didn’t have some bad in it somewhere, and the Sociological Department certainly had a totalitarian tinge. Ford employees could be ordered to clean their houses, tidy their yards, sleep in American-style beds, increase their savings, modify their sexual behavior, and otherwise abandon any practice that a Ford inspector deemed “derogatory to good physical manhood or moral character.”
Where did you get that?
It’s from One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson. Good book. You should read it. There’s some stuff in there in the chapter on Prohibition that illustrates the evil caused by forcing other people to conform to your standards of good behavior.
Maybe we will. We like Bryson. A Walk in the Woods…Hey! What’s going on? Did we just join a book club?
I’m just having some fun messing with you.
Isn’t that what you’ve been doing all along?
Are you ever going to finish this post?
Right now. Here, you’ll start…
I don’t see what Henry Ford has to do with it. That was 1927.
More like 1916. Bryson was giving background.
Whenever. Nearly a hundred years ago. Practically the 19th Century. We can’t go backwards in time.
It’s 2014 and you’re insisting the country should be run according to the teachings of a cult that was invented almost 2000 years ago not by Jesus himself but by fanatics who apparently didn’t listen to a word he said.
Not the whole country. Just our businesses! We have the right to run them as we see fit!
Before you re-introduce your head to your desk, read the whole thing. You’ll notice that while the editors say the poll shows that Americans think the country would be better off if Mitt Romney was President the percentage who actually thinks this is less than the number who actually voted for him in 2012. And in the ranking of best Presidents, Obama comes in fourth, behind Reagan, Clinton, and Kennedy, Feel a little better? Ok, here’s my take.
What the poll likely really shows is that liberals who were polled, in our earnest humorless way, took it seriously, actually deliberated with themselves before giving thoughtful answers, and in the process wound up dividing their votes for the worst President between Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush and their votes for the best between Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama, while conservatives saw the poll as as an opportunity to tell liberals Fuck you.
The Republican Corporatists on the Supreme Court don’t really believe corporations are people. That’s just a legal fiction to cover their belief that the people who own and run corporations should have more power and rights than the rest of us. It’s a way of ensuring that the people with the most money get the most say in how the country gets run.
The thing is, those people don’t want the most say.
They want all the say.
And the Court’s decisions in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn help them along towards that goal.
“In Sartre's No Exit, Hell is other people. In the Soviet Union, says Mazursky, all there is of heaven is other people.” Robin Williams as a Russian musician practicing for his job in a circus band before his defection to the United States in Moscow on the Hudson directed by Paul Mazursky, who died yesterday, June 30, 2014, at the age of 84. Among Mazursky’s other films are Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, An Unmarried Woman,Enemies: A Love Story, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Below is the review of Moscow on the Hudson I wrote after seeing it for the first time in June of 2007.
In the opening sequences of Moscow on the Hudson, flashing back to his life in Russia, Robin Williams' character, circus musician Vladimir Ivanoff, remembers risking being late for work, putting his job and his upcoming, much looked forward to trip to New York City with the circus in jeopardy, to jump into a long line outside a store to buy...he's not sure what. Toilet paper, he hopes. Whatever they're selling, he knows that.
In the Soviet Union, you see a line, you get in it, because everything's so scarce, store shelves are usually so empty, what's available is usually so expensive, that odds are whatever is on sale at the end of the line, you need it.
Or you can use it.
What's at the end of this particular line are men's shoes. Vladimir buys two pair, neither in his size, because there are none in his size, all the shoes are the same size, a size too small for most men. Vladimir doesn't care. He can sell the shoes at a profit or use them as bribes.
The privation, the corruption, the paranoia, the dullness, the way everybody lives on the borderline of poverty, how the consumer goods and the small luxuries that separate them from the truly poor are no compensations because they are ugly, badly made, cost too much in time and effort and rubles to obtain, how every relationship, friendships, family life, love affairs, marriage, is reduced to a business deal---we see a society and an economy horribly crippled by the fear and corruption and purposeful bureaucratic inefficiency necessary to keeping its own evil regime in power and our first thoughts are naturally, Three cheers for capitalism and How did we ever see this sorry nation as a threat to our way of life?
The answer to that second thought is that the Soviets had nuclear weapons and men as crazy and as soulless among their leadership as we had among ours.
Still, you wonder how our saner leaders didn't look at what was going on over there and think, We can outlast them, we can out sell them.
This isn't the place to get into the old containment vs confrontation debates or look at what a lot of our leaders were really looking for as an outcome to our rivalry with the Soviet Union---safe markets not new democracies.
As for the first thought, director Paul Mazursky more or less responds, Are you sure you want to cheer that enthusiastically? Maybe you should wait and see.
Mazursky takes a long while to get Vladimir to the United States where we know he's going to defect and where we expect the real plot of the movie's going to unfold, testing our patience, because he wants to show us something else about life in the Soviet Union first.
The way people cling to each other.
Despite the corrupting influence of money, actually the lack of it, on relationships---a marriage proposal, even a sincere one inspired by love, is phrased in starkly economic terms with a list of material benefits that would result---and the fear that any person you know and are close to and trust could turn out to be a KGB stooge---at one point Vladimir is given a choice, spy on your best friend and inform on him, or your beloved grandfather could wind up in a "mental hospital"----the people grab hold of each other, literally, and hold tight, because their only joy in life and their only solace is love.
In Sartre's No Exit, Hell is other people. In the Soviet Union, says Mazursky, all there is of heaven is other people.
With that established, he finally sends Vladimir to New York where he defects in Bloomingdales.
And for the first few scenes after he defects, the movie really does allow us, encourages us, to give three years for capitalism and the USA.
This really is a wonderful country.
Seeing it through Vladimir's eyes as he takes it all in for the first time choked me up.
God, I love this country!
But it is not a paradise, it is not heaven on earth, and it is not without its own forms of hell, even for the lucky like Vladimir.
First, there is just the overwhelming fact of freedom itself. To be able to go where you want, do what you want, be what you want to be---all those choices, all those decisions, all those problems that follow and all the more choices and decisions that have to be made after the first ones! Where do you start? How do you start? Why bother to start?
And having all that freedom to make choices doesn't necessarily mean you have the means to follow through. In America you are free to want everything. You can only have what you can afford.
Or what you know how to ask for. One of Vladimir's friends on his first job in America, washing dishes, is another recent arrival to America, an astrophysicist who has to work in a kitchen because he doesn't speak English well-enough to get a teaching job. He's worried that when he finally does master the language skills, his other skills as a scientist will have become out of date.
All those choices can be depressing too. Just because it's not as bad as it was back in Moscow doesn't mean that it's not dispiriting. Vladimir literally faints when he walks into a grocery store to buy coffee and faces an entire aisle full of fifty brands of coffee to choose from.
Not being able to choose is not as sad as having no choice, but the result is the same. You go home empty-handed.
Freedom means being able to rely on yourself, to not have to ask for favors or make deals just to get through a day (Which inspires the question, how free are any of us?), and that means people don't need each other as desperately as they did back home. Vladimir finds that all his new friendships are much looser than they were in Russia and likely to be temporary.
And the freedom to be your own self, to live your life your own way, to be the person you want to be, can make people jealous of themselves. It can make them resist any claim you might make on them, even the most well-meaning and caring claims, even the claims of love and affection. They will see it as an attempt to control them, as an attempt to steal from them a part of themselves.
On the day Vladimir's new American girlfriend, the Italian sales clerk under whose skirt he hid when he was fleeing his KGB handlers in Bloomingdales, played by Maria Conchita Alonso, becomes a US citizen she turns immediately cold and sullen. She finds a far corner to be alone and away from her family at the party celebrating her citizenship. She pulls away from Vladimir whenever he tries to hug her. She provokes a fight. When he storms off she looks triumphant.
It didn't help that he picked the moment she wanted most to be alone to propose and that he put his proposal in the old, Soviet-style way, as a matter of economic convenience to both of them, making her afraid that all he wanted out of her was a nicer apartment and his own path to citizenship smoothed out. And she's terrified of her new freedom as well. It has sunk in what it means to be able to call her life her own---she is on her own in a way she has no idea yet how to handle.
But what's really upsetting her is that now that she is truly her own person she doesn't want to share any of her new-found self with anybody else. She wants to enjoy it all to herself. She is, understandably, feeling extremely selfish---self-ish---and here's Vladimir trying to claim a major piece of her self away from her.
It isn't long before they break up.
This is how it goes with all of Vladimir's American connections. All his new friendships turn out to be transient or illusory or unreliable in some other way.
The only friend who sticks with him is his lawyer, Orlando, merrily played by Alejandro Rey making the case with his infectious grin that as miserable as life can be here, anywhere, there is still always much to enjoy and love, and Orlando isn't sticking because he likes Vladimir, although he does, very much; he's sticking because he's his lawyer and he's being paid to stick.
The crisis Mazursky has brought Vladimir's story to is spiritual. Freedom has come at soul-crushing price. For Vladimir, being an American, being a New Yorker at any rate, means being all on his own, which is to say, being terribly lonely.
His best friends have wandered away, paying in their way the prices of their own freedoms. The woman he loves wants nothing more to do with him. He will probably never see his family in Russia ever again. There are millions of people all around him but they are strangers and pretty much all of them are content, eager even, to remain strangers.
He is part of a crowd and apart from it. And what he must do is find a way to live with himself as his own best company, figure out how to use his freedom to make himself happy...or at least not miserable.
Thus the last scene of the movie. Vladimir, having found work as a musician again, sets up on a street corner to play his saxophone. Most of the passersby ignore him, but a few pause, listen, applaud, drop some coins, make a connection, a temporary one, and move on, leaving him alone in the crowd, playing his music for himself, making himself happy by himself.
You probably noticed all five conservative Supreme Court Justices are male and Catholic.
I’m not sure how much that signifies. Justice Sotomayor is Catholic. Justice Breyer is male. The combination, male and Catholic, might seem to matter, but it’s more of a coincidence or, at any rate, a contingency. What the five really have in common is that they were appointed by conservative Republican Presidents because they could be counted on to act as conservative Republicans on the high court bench---Pro-Big Business first of all, then anti-worker, and then socially conservative and anti-choice. Yesterday’s Hobby Lobby case was decided in 2006 when Sandra Day O’Connor retired or, you could argue, in 2000 when the Republican partisans on the Supreme Court then decided to make George W. Bush president.
…a group of conservatives led by Representative Trent Franks of Arizona said they wanted to speak with the president, so they convened in a room off the House floor and gathered around a phone.
“Congressman, I understand you have a plan for getting the bill passed,” Bush told Franks as the others strained to listen.
Franks made clear he and his colleagues actually did not like the bill because they felt it expanded the government role in health care.
“I misunderstood,” Bush said. “I thought you had a plan.”
“I just needed to tell you that,” Franks said, referring to the way conservatives viewed the bill. “The only way they could change their minds on a proposal like that is if they believed they were getting something more important for the country.”
“Like what?” Bush asked.
Trying not to sound pushy, Franks switched to the third person. “If we could get the president of the United States to give his word of honor tonight that he would only appoint Supreme Court justices that he knew would overturn Roe v. Wade, would uphold personhood for the unborn in the Constitution and be strict constructionists, we could get this done right now,” he said.
…Franks believed he had a commitment from the president to appoint anti-abortion justices; Bush of course was inclined to do so anyway, but the conservatives would try to hold him to it. Franks later sent him a list of ten candidates who fit his criteria. Among them were a couple of appeals court judges named John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Next time a supposed progressive tells you there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats, point to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
A master chef in the kitchen but an incompetent newbie when it comes to social media, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau, right) starts a Twitter flame war despite the warnings of his saucier Martin (John Leguizamo, far left) and sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), accidentally setting in motion his own downfall and eventual redemption in Chef, a comedy about the joy of cooking and other things, written and directed by Favreau.
House special: Click on the photos above and below for video side dishes.
I expected Chef to examine the sometimes competing values of art and work, how to balance the urge to create and the need to make a living, the idiosyncratic natures of families and friendships, and, of course, the joy of cooking and eating good food.
I didn’t expect a satirical disquisition on the problematic benefits of social media, how to and how not to Twitter, and how, used intelligently and with real heart, as opposed to sentimentality, Vine can be a major force for good.
YouTube turns out to be another matter.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau and starring Favreau as the chef of the title, Carl Casper, Chef chronicles one crucial summer in Carl’s life as he tries, fumblingly and not quite determinedly, to get his once stellar career back on track by giving up haute cuisine to make and sell sandwiches off a food truck.
Up to some point shortly before the movie picks up, Carl seems to have had a wonderful life with a gorgeous and loving wife (Sofia Vergara), a son who idolizes him (Emjay Anthony), a still climbing reputation as one of the best chef’s in Los Angeles, a secure job at a renowned restaurant where he oversees a talented staff and loyal staff (led by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) who are more than devoted to him, they love him.
We’re meeting him, though, at a time when he’s become hard to love.
He’s querulous, defensive, short-fused, emotionally evasive and easily distracted---by his own thoughts. His mind seems always elsewhere. He’s a good boss to his staff but not much of a leader these days. He’s asking too much and too little and is incapable or, more likely, unwilling to explain things in a way that lets them know just what he wants, and this appears to be because he doesn’t know what he wants, out of them or for himself.
And he’s in the process of letting all the good things in his life slip away. He and his wife have divorced. When he can’t find an excuse not to be with his son, he hands him off to friends to watch while he busies himself with work, work, by the way, his son longs to take part in. This is a kid whose major demand is that his father teach him to be like him. And, at the moment, for the moment, he has a sexy and very low-maintenance girlfriend, Molly, the maitre d’ at the restaurant (Scarlett Johansson), but the basis of their affair is Molly’s understanding that he doesn’t really want a girlfriend and not taking it personally.
The only thing Carl seems committed to holding onto is his job at the restaurant but, we soon figure out, sticking with this job is a passive-aggressive way of letting his reputation slide.
It’s a good restaurant, and Riva, the owner (Dustin Hoffman), admires and respects Carl and his talents, but Riva knows his clientele and they’re not epicureans. They aren’t out for an adventure in fine dining. They want the gourmet equivalent of comfort food. Although he’s willing to let Carl experiment with a special now and then, what he wants---demands---is the same tried and true menu every night.
Carl needs something more. He just doesn’t seem to know that he needs it
Inez, his still loving and understanding ex-wife, knows. And she’s pretty sure of what it is he needs.
He needs to be his own boss and run his own restaurant, goals he’d been working toward and, truthfully, probably should have achieved well before now. In Inez’s non-judgmental opinion, he’s allowed himself to be to become too comfortable working at the restaurant. (Her opinion turns out to be shared by someone else, although he’s all too happy to wax judgmental when expressing it.) She’s decided his life needs shaking up and she’s hit on a plan.
A food truck.
Her idea is that a food truck will solve several of Carl’s problems at once. It will break him out of his stifling routine. It will allow him to be his own boss. And it will get him back to basics, making and serving food for people to enjoy for its own delicious sake and not out of an awed appreciation for the genius who made it.
Carl has consistently rejected the idea, for reasons of ego and professional pride---as you might expect of a master chef whose next step up ought to be a five-star restaurant of his own, Carl sees slinging sandwiches out of a truck parked at a beach as something of a step down---but there’s more to it.
He’s afraid to make any move, up or down, forward or backward, or sideways.
He’s as scared of success as he is of failure.
Carl’s reached a stage in his career where the next step requires a jump across a chasm and he’s frozen on the ledge. The leap required is a leap of faith in himself and he can’t manage it. Somewhere along the line he lost confidence in himself if not in his ability and now all his mental energy and focus are aimed at his keeping himself safely and securely teetering on the ledge. He doesn’t want to go backwards but he’s terrified of falling if he moves even an inch forward. And he’s convinced any demand on his attention will distract him and cause him to lose his balance.
Unfortunately, one demand is coming from his ten year old son Percy.
Carl wants to be a good and attentive father. He goes through the motions of being one. But everything he says to Percy, no matter how well meant and how tactfully or apologetically phrased, is a craven excuse for his neglect that he expects Percy to understand and accept without question, judgment, or complaint.
This can’t last.
Fortuitously, Carl bumbles his way into a Twitter war with a famous and famously caustic food critic (Oliver Platt) that leads to a face to face confrontation in the restaurant captured, of course, by fifty cell phones. A video goes viral---“I’m a cat playing the piano,” Carl laments of his sudden online celebrity. “I’m a meme!”---and Carl, humiliated, ashamed, and utterly baffled by what’s happening to him---he’s becoming famous but it doesn’t feel like a good thing---goes into hiding and then on the run. It’s a very low-velocity escape. He takes a trip to Miami with Inez and Percy to visit Inez’s father, a musician and singer at a nightclub in Little Havana (played by the salseroJose C. “Perico” Hernandez. This is a good point to mention that Chef has a marvelous, eclectic soundtrack.) and at the club he’s served a Cuban sandwich that comes with a side of epiphany.
Two things dawn on him. These are really good sandwiches, the best he’s ever tasted, and he knows how to make them better.
Next thing we know, practically the next thing Carl knows himself, he’s cleaning, restoring, and outfitting a battered, grease-caked, rattletrap of a food truck, readying it for a drive back to California with stops along the way at Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Austin, Texas to sell sandwiches to pay for the trip.
He’s gotten the push he’s needed. But it’s not clear where it came from.
He might have stopped resisting Inez’s gentle prodding. He might have taken the less than subtle hint form the critic who, it turns out, is a disappointed early fan rooting for Carl to return to form. He might just be reflexively responding to circumstances that he might have unconsciously brought about himself. He might have finally made the decision he’d known he was going to have to make all along but had been putting off.
He might have activated his self-destruct button.
We can’t be sure what happened, because we’re never told.
One of the many beauties of Favreau’s screenplay is that his characters don’t waste time in conversation with each other on exposition. They are full of mixed and mixed-up emotions but don’t often pause to analyze or explain themselves. Carl, the most mixed up of the bunch, won’t sit still to listen to anyone who tries to analyze or explain him to himself.
They all have complicated backstories, too, or, actually, a backstory.
Chef is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged cook but Carl, like a real human being, doesn’t exist as a self apart from the people he works with and loves, so a full portrait of the man is a portrait of the group. These people know each other well and they’ve been through a lot together. They know how they’ve got here together (here being not just inside this story but inside any particular scene) so they don’t need to stop and remind each other about what’s going on. This leaves them free to talk about what’s immediately in front of them, which makes for more dynamic, thing-specific, and sparer dialog than we hear in most “realistic” comedies and dramas, but leaves it up to us to work out what they’re thinking and feeling from allusions and references, as well as evasions, in what they’re saying and not saying. It’s like wandering in on conversations in real life where we can’t interrupt to ask, Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?
A lot of the fun is in the guessing game posed by the script but also in not guessing---in taking things at face value and just enjoying listening to these characters being themselves instead of explaining themselves.
Favreau takes a similarly oblique approach with his directing. Very often the point of an action, the beauty of it, the fun of it, is in watching the action for its own sake and not to see what it means or where it’s leading. This is especially true of scenes in which food is being prepared.
In most movies, scenes are shaped from the outside. That is, a scene is defined by what it takes to move the plot from one point to the next. When that point’s reached, the scene ends and a new scene begins. In Chef, Favreau shapes his scenes from the inside around what is being said and done. For the sake of what’s being said and done. A scene will begin when characters are still thinking and talking about something else before they haphazardly and randomly work their way to discussing what’s really the matter at hand and it will end unpredictably, without resolution, when they run out of words and are too baffled or angry or confused or chagrined to know what to say next or when they remember there’s something else they need to be doing and rush off to do it. Sometimes a new scene begins within a scene that hasn’t clearly ended when conversations get sidetracked by a new character bursting in with something else on his or her mind. Often it takes a moment to realize that’s happening, that the first scene’s over, the story’s been redirected, and a new scene’s begun without the camera moving or the time and place changing. More often, though, while the background changes, the actors change costumes, and it’s clear time (although not always how much time) has passed, the resulting effect is that Chef feels like one continuous scene. Kind of like life.
Carl is joined on his road-trip of self-rediscovery by his friend Martin, the saucier at Riva’s, who’s quit his job to follow Carl, and Percy who convinces his doubtful dad that working on a food truck is an ideal way for a ten year old to spend his summer vacation. And in watching these three cook their way across country that we see Chef’s major themes about work, art, and family and friendship put into direct action. Martin (Leguizamo) is a man of perfect faith, supremely confident that this enterprise is going to pay off in (enough) money and (a reasonable degree of) happiness because he has placed that faith in Carl’s talent. He’s not just a friend, he’s a true brother to Carl and uncle to Percy. Emjay Anthony as Percy is one of the least annoying child actors you’re ever likely to see, natural, intelligent without any off-putting precocity, good at conveying emotion without being cloying, precious, or bratty. This is a kid you wouldn’t mind having along for a three-thousand plus mile drive. He works hard, is quick on the uptake, and is eager to learn. As it happens, he also has a knack for using social media for marketing. Chef makes a good case that the best thing a father and son can do together to “bond” is share work and and practical knowledge. Forget spots, forget opening-up. Give the kid a tool and tool and show him how to use it.
As for the rest of the cast, Vergara is a curvaceous, broadly smiling island of placidity and heart. Oliver Platt deadpans his way marvelously through his scenes as the food critic, Ramsey Michel. His slow boil as he’s served one disappointing course after another is a masterpiece of not completely repressed anger. Robert Downey Jr is a one-scene wonder as Sofia’s other ex-husband, a charismatic but paranoid neurotic who manages to mix generosity with extreme selfishness. Bobby Cannavale, who should be in every movie, is happily in this one as Tony, Carl’s sous chef at Riva’s, an amiable alcoholic and screw-up outside the kitchen---he manages to arrive at work close to on time when he’s passed out in his car in the parking lot the night before---but who snaps to as soon as he has a knife or a sauce pan in hand. It’s implied that Tony’s life is saved when Carl’s seems to fall apart and he gets to take over as Riva’s chef de cuisine. Tony is an illustration of Chef’s theme that we’re all at our best when we’re working at something we love to do and are good at, but here again we’re not told. Or shown. Tony’s story continues off screen without updates, and Favreau leaves it up to us to figure it out.
Dustin Hoffman plays the type of character he was designed and built to play but which he’s played very few of since The Graduate, an ordinary human being with realistic problems, in this case a small business owner trying to keep afloat while balancing multiple and conflicting responsibilities. Riva, Carl’s soon-to-be former boss, admires and appreciates and likes Carl, but Carl isn’t his only employee. Riva feels a responsibility to keep his whole staff employed. He feels a responsibility to keep his loyal clientele happy. He feels a responsibility to himself to make a living. He feels a responsibility to Carl but Carl is making it difficult for him all around. We have a rooting interest in Riva’s standing up for Carl but, thanks to Hoffman’s earnest reasonableness and his convincing mix of affection, worry, disappointment, and repressed anger, when he lets him down we can’t help but think Riva might be doing the right thing.
Scarlett Johansson is another one getting to do what she hasn’t been doing much of lately, play an ordinary human being, although one who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful. Johansson is a member in high standing of the best crop of young leading actresses to come along in my lifetime, but next to the likes of Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Emily Blunt (with Emma Stone coming up behind them), she is the least natural and versatile, the most unsure of how to present herself to the camera and the one most lacking in confidence in her own voice. You can see the wheels turning as she calculates how to turn her head or phrase a line. And she never seems to know how to shape those incredibly luscious lips. But all that works for her in Chef, just as it does in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and for a similar reason.
In both she plays characters uncertain how to deal with men who, for different reasons in different ways, are difficult to deal with. Black Widow is trying to figure out how to get Cap to like and trust her. Molly knows Carl likes and trusts her but she’s aware that neither will count for much if she says the wrong thing or makes a wrong thing and sets him off on tempter tantrum or sinks him into a sulk, or chases him out the door. It makes sense that she would be cautiously thinking her way through every conversation.
Looking back to Lost in Translation, though, I’m wondering if this is deliberate career choice, that Johansson has been making a sub-specialty of playing characters who are baffled by their temperamental male leads.
Speaking of male leads.
I wouldn’t say Favreau gives the best performance by an actor directing himself since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane. But it’s the best performance by an actor directing himself I can think of at the moment since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane.
Directing yourself is a challenge it’s probably wisest not to take on. The divide in attention required causes problems in front of and behind the camera. Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Woody Allen have usually handled it by playing their standard movie personas. George Clooney likes to cast himself in secondary roles when he directs. All four lower the demands on themselves as actors. But Favreau gives a fully developed, totally honest character performance. He’s made it harder on himself by making Carl difficult to sympathize with, at least for the first third of the film. As I said, we’re meeting Carl at a time in his life when he’s hard to love. He’s irritable, contentious, mercurial, and often cruel to his family and friends. On top of all that he’s wrong. I don’t mean his opinions and judgments are incorrect or mistaken. I mean that he’s routinely in the wrong because he’s operating from premises that are wrong, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and even morally. Favreau makes us see all that about Carl and excepts us to disapprove of him or at least be disappointed in him and yet still keeps us interested in him and rooting for him. He does this in a number of ways that should be taught in every acting class. But one of the best ways is his showing us that Carl is really, really, really good at what he does by having trained himself to be really, really, really good at doing what Carl is supposed to be doing himself.
I don’t know how good a cook Favreau learned to be, but if you’re ever in a bar bet over who can slice a carrot fastest and thinnest, put your money on Favreau.
Now. About the food.
I can’t even begin…
Chef really is about the joy of cooking. Not so much of eating. Cinematographer gives his camera’s loving attention to the preparation. The digging is left to the imagination.
Watching Chef will make you hungry, but it might also make you want to rush out as soon as it’s over to buy a cookbook and a set of high-quality chef’s knives.
There’s a scene in which Carl and Molly go back to his apartment after work and he sets about preparing them a late night snack. With most couples, this would be something to do after. For these two, we suspect, it’s their favorite form of foreplay. The camera cuts back and forth between shots of Carl cooking, ingredients going into and out of pans---it’s a pasta dish---and Molly, reclining on her side on the couch, her tight black sweater falling off one shoulder, her short, tight skirt riding up her thigh, a look of lubricious expectation on in her eyes, her lips parted in anticipatory delight, and when I saw Johansson like that I leaned over to Mrs M and whispered, “I want that.”
If you are inspired to buy a cookbook by Chef, the cookbook you’d want is one by Roy Choi, the chef who trained Favreau and provided many of the recipes for the dishes prepared in the film. Unfortunately, Choi hasn’t published a true cookbook that I have found. He has, however, written a memoir that includes many of his favorite recipes. It’s called L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food and it’s available at Amazon in hardcover and for kindle.
Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. Rated R. Now in theaters.
When he was in third grade, Oliver Mannion went through a period when he was a little down on himself.
Don’t tell me childhood is all lollipops and moonbeams.
He’d always been a smart and industrious little kid, praised by his teachers, bringing home good grades, quietly but studiously excelling in every subject. But that was no longer enough for him.
Meanwhile, outside school, he’d try his hand at anything that captured his interest. He played soccer. He tried to learn music. He set about teaching himself how to draw. He built and painted toy soldiers. To his proud mother and me these efforts were signs of curiosity, ambition, and diligence.
It turned out, though, that to him they were amounting to one failure after another.
I don’t know if it was a sudden or gradual realization, but he had become aware that some kids in his class were much better at some things than all the other kids. They had what Oliver called “special talents.” And as far as he could tell he wasn’t one of those kids. There were things he was good at, but nothing he felt he was one of the best at.
This was weighing on him, and every now and then, he’d try to talk about it, usually at bedtime---which meant he was ending his day on a gloomy and self-reproachful note.
“Dad,” he would say, “What’s my special talent?”
The first time he asked this, I, being slow on the uptake, cheerfully launched into listing all the many things he did well and how proud Mrs M and I were of him and his efforts.
Oliver would have none of it.
“No, Dad. What’s my special talent?”
So I picked out one of the things on the list to enthuse over. I can’t remember which, but it was probably what was impressing me most at the time, his ability to design functioning cities and neighborhoods and create characters in the world-building computer games he’d recently begun to play. I said he had the makings of an architect or an engineer or an interior designer or even a writer.
He said, “That’s not a special talent.”
I asked him to explain, which he did. He was always good at explaining.
There was more to his idea of a special talent than just being really good at something. A special talent would also be something he did well enough that he could devote his life to it and expect to be rewarded not with money and fame but with satisfaction and pride. What was something he could do very well that he would love doing?
Like I said. Third grade.
Anyway, whatever else I said to him that night didn’t satisfy him. He went to bed in a thoughtful mood and the next night he asked again.
“What’s my special talent?”
This time I was better prepared. When he rejected the idea that whatever I’d picked from the list as his special talent was in fact a special talent I followed up with “Arguing.”
He really didn’t like that.
“No, seriously,” I said, “You’ve always been very good at debating---that’s the better word. You’re good at making your mother and I, and your teachers, explain what we’re thinking when we tell you to do things or try to teach you lessons about life, the universe, and everything.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference didn’t amuse him.
“That’s not a special talent.”
“Sure it is,” I said.
“What good is it?”
“It’s good if you grow up to be a lawyer.”
He decided to think that one over.
But another night he came back with the now familiar question. “Dad, what’s my special talent?”
Ah, I thought, here’s the budding lawyer making a motion for an appeal.
But I was ready again. This time I told him that sometimes special talents take a while to blossom. “You can’t have a special talent for something you don’t have the physical or emotional maturity to do yet or the experience to even know what that something really is and what sort of talent it demands. Your mother and I think you’re going to be very good at one of the these things you’re already doing well but you have to do a little more growing up, that’s all.”
This sounded wise to me. Probably sounded like complete horse hockey to him.
Anyway, time did pass. The subject seemed to fade from his mind or, more likely, given the way he is, he decided to keep it to himself from now on because his old man was too much of blockhead and blowhard to talk to about it anymore.
A few years later, he and I were waiting in the gallery at his big brother’s karate dojo for Ken to finish his lesson. Oliver was in junior high by this point. I was noodling on the computer and Oliver was, I thought, off by himself, reading the rule book for his new Mutants & Masterminds tabletop RPG. Then I heard him talking and I glanced over to see that a little kid, a third grader it looked like, had sat down next to him, curious about what Oliver was reading. Oliver was explaining the game and the rules to him. And doing an excellent job of it.
Not only was the kid grasping the concept. I was getting it.
And it dawned on me.
Oliver’s special talent wasn’t arguing.
It was explaining.
When he seemed to be arguing, he was explaining what he didn’t understand and needed explained to him.
This should have been obvious. It was something his kindergarten and first grade teachers had noticed and joked about, affectionately and with admiration. They liked having him in their class, well, because he was a likeable kid, but also because often he could explain a lesson to the other kids in the class better than the teachers thought they could themselves.
“We call him the Little Professor,” his first grade teacher said to me once.
In trying his hand at everything, looking for his own special talent, he was learning how things work so that when the time came he could talk to anyone else trying to do those things and explain how to do them better. His special talent was helping others recognize and develop their special talents.
He was a born teacher.
When he and I were alone later, I started to tell him this, but he explained he was coming to this conclusion himself and had already begun in his methodical, industrious, intelligent way to direct his steps in the direction of becoming a teacher.
Saturday, Mrs M and I made our last visit to the high school as parents of a student. From here on out, whenever we go up there it’ll be as voters or concerned citizens. Same with Oliver, although he’ll be able to add “alumnus.”
Diploma in hand and special talent identified, he’ll start college in the fall as an elementary education major. He’s earned several scholarships and will be enrolling in the school’s honor program. His goal is to wind up back at his old grade school.
Every era has its own peculiar insanities. One of ours is a sudden vituperative disrespect for teachers bordering on out and out hatred. All over the country there are concerted efforts to put teachers back in their place as mere employees, and temp workers at that, grateful for whatever pittance the local school board deigns to pay them. Several cohorts of teacher-bashers are behind this, for different but overlapping reasons. One of them is the “reformers,” well-educated, successful, supposedly intelligent professionals who claim to be out to improve our schools but really seem to want only to monetize them. These self-proclaimed, self-flattering “meritocrats” love to boast of their own intelligence, skill, and talent and they insist that what they’re looking to promote and reward is intelligence, skill, and talent in others. But they really don’t value talent.
They don’t appear to even know what it is.
What they value is productivity.
That’s another way of saying they value making a maximum amount money at a minimal cost.
Teachers are anything but “productive” in that way.
And it’s clear that these reformers think teachers aren’t productive because they are without talent, whatever that is, unintelligent, and lazy, they need to be incentivized to work harder and become productive by money---by the fear of not having it, that is, not by the real prospect of earning more of it. Only the masters and mistresses of the universe are disincentivized by not earning more. The rest of us peons are only incentivized by fear of poverty and privation. Consequently, teachers must always be worried about losing their jobs. And so what if any one of them does? He or she can be easily replaced, by practically any jamoke off the street desperate enough to be grateful for whatever job and pay they can get and so terrified of losing both they will do whatever’s demanded of them by their bosses, which is to strive frantically to be more and more productive.
This is part and parcel with their general belief that people’s only reason for existing is to create wealth and in that endeavor everybody, except them, is interchangeable and disposable. But it fits with a more general contempt for teachers as not very smart or ambitious types who drift into the field for the summers off, the over-indulgent benefits, and the guarantee that no matter how incompetent they are they won’t be fired. Maybe the best of them go into it because they’re sentimentalists who “love kids” and believe “the children are our future” but that’s a sign they aren’t really serious grownups.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” right?
To which somebody has rejoined:
“Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, tell teachers how to do their jobs.”
The senior awards banquet at the high school two weeks before graduation day was a long night. A lot of scholarships and awards were given out. None of them of the Thanks for Participating kind so many Millennial-bashers seem to think is the norm. Oliver picked up three, including the one I mentioned, a scholarship awarded to seniors going on to college to major in education. There were a number of similar scholarships for future teachers from different sponsors. I counted at least ten students who earned one, including the captain of the football team. Nobody gives you a scholarship for wanting summers off and a guarantee you won’t be fired. Nobody gives you a scholarship for being lazy, unintelligent, motivated by mere sentimentality, and lacking in drive and ambition. All these scholarship winners were also honors students, including Oliver, which means they did very well in all their classes throughout high school. Also not the mark of people who are lazy, unintelligent, and under-motivated. And I will bet that all of them identified their “special talent” early and have been working hard towards the day when they will be at the head of their own classrooms helping their kids identify and develop their special talents.
Oliver can probably explain this better than I can. All I’m saying here is this.
No one better dare teacher-bash in front of me.
Oliver Mannion prepares to commence. Saturday, June 28, 2014.
The blossoms on the Catalpas have blown. Monday I noticed petals around the base of some trees. Tuesday more petals, far fewer blossoms, and the ones still in the trees looked pretty ragged. Wednesday there were almost no flowers left. Far as I’ve been able to see, there’s only one Catalpa tree still in flower along the whole twelve mile stretch between here and New Paltz. That one isn’t just in flower. It’s in full flower, looking like all the other catalpas did two weeks ago. Could be a different, later blooming species. Glad to see it, whatever it is, when I drove by this morning. Which surprised me. Tell you why.
Catalpas have been annoying me this year.
For some reason I’ve taken a dislike to them. They’ve never been among my favorite trees. They’re not handsome. Not shapely. In open yards and fields where they’re ornamentals, they can spread out their branches to make shade, but where they’ve escaped into the wild, they’re mostly small-scale opportunists with limited ambitions, sprouting up in gaps where other trees have failed to take root, which means they tend grow in narrow spaces along roadsides where they have room to grow up but not out. But I don’t recall ever much minding them before. I’ve been racking my brains, trying to figure out what I suddenly have against them.
All I’ve come up with is I just don’t like the look of them.
Their perfectly spade-shaped leaves are too big and too green and too much an unleafy shade of green, even an unnatural shade of green, at that. Science fiction green. Night vision goggle green. Shrek green. Halloween make-up green.
And while their leaves are too big, their flowers are too small, as if they were designed for medium-sized bushes and not tall trees, and they have a dirty, shop-worn look and hang haphazardly, as if someone’s gathered the discarded boutonnieres from last night’s prom and strung them up in loose, random bunches without design, thought, or care.
Most trees flower before they leaf. With catalpas, flowering’s an after-thought, and a half-hearted effort. Hawthorns and apple trees go all snowy-white. Catalpas merely develop clusters of cauliflower-colored polka dots.
Did I say catalpas annoy me?
They infuriate me.
And I blame them.
As if they’re choosing not to be maples or birches or walnut trees out of spite.
So I was actually looking forward to their dropping their flowers so they would blend in with the other, better looking, un-spiteful trees, or, at any rate, I thought I was.
But when I saw this one, late and tenaciously blooming catalpa, which, by the way, stands practically alone in a field behind a farmhouse where it’s had lots of room to branch out, I smiled and said, “Power on, dude!” Or I would have said it if I’d had time to stop and walk over to it and I believed trees can hear and understand (Some people will tell you they do.) and I was actually inclined to say “Power on, dude” to anyone or anything, flora or fauna.
The thing is that with the catalpas blown the only color beside green left in the upper canopy is the yellow of the tips of the leaves at the tips of the branches of the honey locusts and once that’s gone there’ll be nothing but unrelieved green until the trees that bear fruit bear fruit.
Unless you count the olive-colored cones of flowers on the sumacs, if you can call a sumac a tree, which I suppose you can, the way you can call a Cooper Mini a car or the Chicago Cubs a Major League Baseball team.