Friday, February 19, 2010

Pocket Review of "Julie & Julia"

My beloved embarked on a new work schedule this week - 8PM to 6AM. As a result, I will not be seeing him (other than passing in the occasional night) until mid-March, when his schedule returns to Trader Joe's' definition of normal.  At that point, we are going to take stock of our circumstances and make a decision regarding whether or not we want to move forward with our plan to cohabitate (necessitating me leaving my beloved Brooklyn for Astoria, Queens). Therefore, I reinstated my Netflix account in case I have time to kill in the coming weeks (I am also excited that it is now possible to view Netflix on demand on macs).  

My first selection was "Julie&Julia," starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.
I chose this film for several reasons: 1) The trailer I had seen in the theatre many months ago made it look like my kind of film.  2) I ADORE Meryl Streep, as she is the finest American actress, well, ever (she is at the very least in the top five, and to my knowledge, she has never made a misstep/given a bad performance.)  3) I like Amy Adams (when I can release my jealousy and resentment regarding the fact that she was discovered doing dinner theatre in Assknuckle, Montana, or some damned where.) 4) I love food.

Being of the Southern persuasion,  I grew up with food as the centerpiece, and Jesus and football as the matched candlesticks on the table of my childhood. Food - the gathering, preparation, serving and consuming of it - is an enormous part of life in the South. In fact, I would say that outside of the SEC, storytelling, and judging others, eating is the official sport of the Bible Belt (just harken back to any news report you have ever seen detailing tornadic destruction.)

My mother was always working (sometimes two jobs to compensate for my wastrel stepmonster), and therefore, did not have much time to spend in the kitchen. However, she dutifully cooked on the weekends.  Most often, she would haul out her old chrome waffle iron and whip up a batch of Aunt Jemima's.  She did this even when we would weekend in our tent at a certain camping spot at Smith Lake that had somehow wired the trees with electricity.

Besides being a waffle person vs. a pancake person, a bacon person vs. a sausage person, and a scrambled person vs. a fried person, my mother's recipe arsenal consisted predominantly of: chili in the crock pot, vegetable soup in the pressure cooker, and Italian (emphasis on the "I," pronounced, "Eyetalian") spaghetti in the wintertime; and fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs, and strawberry shortcake in the summertime.  She learned these basic recipes from my granny, and almost all of them were served with an accompaniment of cornbread.

Real Southern cornbread is made from scratch, is not sweet (as Jiffy bread is), and is baked in a pre-heated iron skillet that is sizzling with bacon grease. Both my mother and my grandmother had ceramic jars crowned with little pigs resting on their stovetops for the express purpose of straining and storing bacon grease.  Both also added a tablespoon of mayo to their cornbread batter to ensure moistness.

One of the nicest things my mother ever did for me was request recipes of a variety of friends and relatives whose cooking I enjoyed, by sending them index cards and self-addressed, stamped envelopes.  She collected these in a book for me and presented it as one of my Christmas gifts when I was in college, after I had expressed an interest in learning to cook.

Gradually, I mastered the skill of following a recipe, 
and eventually, I mastered the recipes themselves.  However, due to a lack of detail on my rainbow-colored index cards, this was often challenging. Prior to this time, my only cooking experience (barring the occasional curiosity at Mother's or Granny's knees), was a 6th Grade Home Ec class with a VERY intimidating instructor.  If memory serves, her name was Ms. Roscoe, and she was an absolute Nazi about exact measurements (I remember being sternly reprimanded for failing to level off a teaspoon of baking soda when making an inaugural batch of snickerdoodles).

All of the cooks I admired most were naturals, and as a result, they cooked intuitively.  So it was that when trying to replicate my Great Aunt Faye's Salmon Croquettes, I would come across instructions such as, "Mix the de-boned salmon with 'some' breadcrumbs, a 'little' egg, and a 'dab' of hot sauce."  Or, "These are delicious, especially when served with a 'glob' of 'white sauce'."  I remember asking my mother's friend, Mary Lou, who remains one of the best cooks I have ever known, how much onion I should add to fried squash, and her replying, "Until it looks right."

Throughout my youth, the aformentioned Mary Lou had a thriving vegetable garden.  We took advantage of this as often as possible, relishing in her fresh cabbage (so sweet, we would sit around the table and eat it raw), turnip greens, green onions, and vine-ripened tomatoes.  Mary Lou was born and bred in a very small Northern Alabama town the name of which I can't recall, as she always referred to it as merely, "the country." I ain't mad at it, though, because the country shore did learn her right. Thus was my love of food born and deeply ingrained.

All of these memories regarding cooking, food, and eating jenga-ed (You like that? Totally just made it up - but that's what happened, past experiences tumbled as if they were the wooden blocks when you remove the wrong piece in that game) through my head while watching "Julie&Julia," which is why I think it is a successful film. It is not a great film, certainly, (though had it been the story of Julia and Paul Child only, it could've been) but it does succeed.

Not surprisingly, as it is written and directed by Nora Ephron, "Julie&Julia" is a love story:  The story of Julia's love of Paris, Julia's love for Paul, Julia's love for Julia, Paul's love for Julia, Julia's love of food, and America's love of Julia.

Meryl Streep IS Julia Child.  I say this with utter conviction, though prior to seeing this film, Julia Child was little more than a joke to me - a Dan Akroyd sketch on Saturday Night Live, a funny voice, and an excellent recipe for fresh cranberry sauce that my friend, Joel, makes to perfection every Thanksgiving.

I now realize that Julia was a revolutionary.  She changed the way we cook in America, and she was, by her own admission, absolutely fearless.  She obsessively strove to master French cooking, and she worked tirelessly to make French cooking accessible to all.  Hers was the first French cookbook ever to be written in English, and ever to be aimed at an American audience.  She was never satisfied with things as they were, but was continually improving upon them.  One example of Julia's committment to excellence in the film, is when she discovers that by slightly heating the bowl in which she is making mayonnaise, she can achieve "scientific workability." I know that NO ONE makes their own mayonnaise these days, but still. Also, hers was the first cooking show that was widely distributed, and this made her name synonymous with good food and cooking.

Meryl Streep made me fall in love with Julia Child - with her height, her earthiness, her zest, her auburn-haired frankness, her courage, her passion, her vulnerability, and her motto to "never apologize." Being 39 and still single, I can readily identify with the fact that she married slightly later in life, (especially for the time).  I can relate to her belated realization of how very sheltered she had been prior to her marriage and her sojourn in Europe, and I can definitely relate to her excitement when shopping for kitchen gadgets. I strongly indentify with her voracious appetite not just for food, but for knowledge, skill, people, fun, and experiences. Above all, I can relate to Julia's search for purpose in her life - "For so long, I have wanted a CAREER!"  she says, after finding that food is her passion. Her discovery of this purpose (and thus, herself), her utter joy of being, and her ability to transform my view of food and cooking (I now see them for the art that they are) has truly inspired me.

Stanley Tucci (another favorite actor) is superb as Paul Child, and while I have never seen film footage of the real "Monsieur Sheeld," and therefore cannot speak to how accurate his performance is, I can say that his connection with Meryl Streep is absolutely visceral.  His performance is one of moments and nuances and simplicity.  His inner monologues are stunningly clear, even with no words at all.  He is just so... constant, and loving.  Throughout the film, I found myself longing for a love like theirs.  In fact, I found myself longing (for love, a trip to Paris, brie, wine, stuffed duck, you name it) and feeling throughout this entire movie.

The blog within the blog: In an half-assed effort to correct the lopsidedness of this review, let me spend a moment on Julie.  For those of you who don't know, in August, 2002, a 29 year old woman had the admittedly brilliant idea to cook her way through the 536 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days, and blog about it.  This woman, Julie Powell, parlayed this self-inflicted assignment into first a book contract, and then (obviously) a film deal.  Now, naturally we are all jealous, though she did have an actual DEGREE in writing.  Also, she herself admits that it was a fluke - she happened to be well-positioned at the beginning of America's knowledge of and interest in blogs, and she knows it. Still, having watched her being interviewed online, I have to admit that I find her harsh, dull, and utterly unlikeable.

This explains why I found Amy Adams, who portrays Julie, harsh, dull, and utterly  unlikeable in this film.  Granted, it is hard to be captivating when many of your scenes involve you sitting at a computer, typing.  However, according to my "research" (scanning three articles and watching one interview online), Amy Adams never met Julie Powell, and since Julie Powell is not immediately recognizeable to the public, I doubt Adams' choices were a result of trying to be absolutely accurate in her portrayal.  I think it is more that Nora Ephron got a very clear picture of Ms. Powell from her one meeting with her, and wrote her accordingly.

It is my opinion that Amy Adams is not comfortable playing bitchy characters, and her performance suffers as a result.  However, there were still moments to which I could relate - (Julie's anxiety about moving from Brooklyn to Queens, for instance), and the desire to forge one's own artistic identity (this was meant to be a major parallel between Julie and Julia, but due to Julie's implied sense of entitlement, it didn't land).

Julia and Paul Child positively leap from the screen, and utterly ensnare the viewer, to the point that when the plot shifts from the Parisian 40's to the New York present (OK, recent past), it is jarring.  Julie and her story line pale in comparison - a piece of limp Wonderbread to Julia's fresh, crusty, dripping-with-butter French baguette.  Still utterly worth watching, in my opinion.

The (small) irony in this is that four friends and I attempted, and failed, to start a book club a few years ago. The book?  My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme.  At the time, we were all just too damned busy to read a book, let alone, the same book at the same time. Also, I had just stopped eating all meat but fish, and was turned off by the few pages I read, featuring "enthusiastic carnivore," Julia, describing such feats as plucking and gutting a chicken in 11 minutes flat, or a variety of ways to prepare veal (which I have NEVER eaten - just too cruel), or extract kidneys.  Since seeing this film, however, I have resumed My Life in France, and am halfway through, as I am now completely obsessed with Julia Child and everything she stands for. To that end, I mentioned that I needed Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and danged if my beau didn't order it for me from the good people at Amazon. I can't wait to plan menus, make aspic-free meals, and expand my recipe repertoire.  I have very few food rules, loving to eat as I do, but the ones I do possess are here:
1)  No aspics (generally speaking, I don't like things that have been molded, let alone things that come from hooves).
2)  Nothing that requires a key to open it (i.e. sardines, spam) I figure it's been locked away for a reason.
3)  Nothing with a head and/or eyes still attached (sardines are a double whammy).
4)  No veal (I have never been able to totally release the mental image of a baby calf in a dark cage, not allowed to even walk.)
5) No brains
6) No chitlins
7) No dogs
8) No monkeys (too close to us)

That still leaves me with about 500 recipes to explore courtesy of Julia.  And, I can totally have sex with THAT notion - (especially since I won't be having it with my boyfriend this month).