Sunday, October 25, 2009

Julie & Julia

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

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

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

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that in 300 years, Streep is considered one of the great actresses of performance history, even if by then movies have been replaced by, I dunno, holodecks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, the cat didn't look realistic.

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

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


Two bits of cultural flotsam I've enjoyed in the past few weeks: on the book end, Chang-rae Lee's Aloft and in movieland, Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia. I was enriched by both of them to the point where - at least - I feel compelled to write a bit of commentary on them both. It's long, so I'll divide it into two posts.

Let's start with the less well-known of the two, Aloft. Although reading a Lee novel requires a certain degree of macabre in your mood, and a willingness to follow some loopy elliptical thoughts, prose and plotlines, I'm quite a fan of his work after having read Native Speaker (A Gesture Life is banging around our apartment somewhere and I'll read it when I find it. If you could see our bookcases you'd understand).

In Aloft, Lee leaves the Korean cultural sphere behind a bit to narrate from the perspective of Jerry Battle - whose name is clearly symbolic of many things, mostly the ones I don't have to spell out - nee Battaglia and yet barely connected to his Italian-American roots. I liked how Lee created this character; mentioning just enough about New York Guidos, grandmothers and brittle old scenic posters of Sicily to clarify that Jerry is aware of his roots, but sweeping it all to the side just enough to show the degree of assimilation into American suburban life that his generation underwent. (Jerry is a Baby Boomer, turning 60 just around the time that people stopped using AOL, though his character still does - a detail I found deeply amusing as my parents do, too.)

The only thing I did not find really believeable was Jerry's previous marriage to Daisy Han, a Korean immigrant - He's a widower at the opening of the book but she makes an appearance in a few flashbacks. Nowadays such a marriage would be completely normal, but the 1960s and 70s, when the two characters would have actually been together - I don't see it. Not so much that one is Italian and the other is Korean, but that Jerry is 2nd or 3rd generation (it's not made clear unless there's a detail I missed) and Daisy is an immigrant with an accent. Even in the 1970s, even in New York, a pair across those socioeconomic lines would have been quite rare. One detail that was done right: Daisy was bipolar. The treatment she needed is fairly clear today; Lee did a good job of showing the muddy waters of mental illness diagnosis and treatment just a few decades ago, however.

So now you're probably thinking "Get to the plot, what happened?" - if you're still reading. I'd love to. I really would. But there isn't much of one. Like Lee's other works, Aloft is more a statement on people and their place in society than it is a bearer of any sort of storyline. Something does happen, though: several characters in the book are faced with the possibility of death and of all of them, only one actually dies. Not to say that you don't see it coming, but Lee purposely chose the one who seemed to have the best chance of making it by virtue of socioeconomic status, education and youth to show that you never can tell who will pull through and who won't. Life is like that.

And that's really what the book is about: life. The Problem, says one character - a Korean-American author who is quite clearly Lee's alter-ego, Lee himself exposing, battling the specter of becoming, as that character puts it, a "boutique international writer". It's about how the journey upward - the journey aloft, I suppose - isn't an easy one and there are no guarantees, though you might hit some easy currents along which you might sail as you head up. It deals with who makes it to the top and who pulls out the La-Z-Boy at the first sign of smooth sailing, so as only to climb part way. It's about how different generations see different ways out of the muck and mire of daily life and human toil (no coincidence that the novel is set deep in the OK-but-starting-to-show-its-age suburbs of western Long Island, which are just about as old as Jerry) - Jerry's father being the 'last of the lions' who built something great, the Baby Boomers who built on that and took nothing for granted, while not having to do the heavy lifting themselves, and Jerry's kids' generation (older than Brendan and myself, but close enough), who expand too fast, buy too much and put it all into shoddily built, overside McMansions that can barely fit into the property they're on.

It also comments on being disconnected from life, toil and work as all of the characters do in their own way: Theresa the academic daughter escaping through intellectualism, Jerry through his Cessna, Jack the popular, good-looking son through maniacally expanding the family business to include everything except, it seems, what brings in the money...moving dirt. Making it all seem more glamorous than it is. Toward the end the only conclusion is that you can continue to climb ever-upward, but you can't disconnect from dirt and in the difficult, fickle business of life only has one insurance and one protection: family. I like that; it's something I've learned while living on the dark side of the globe from my own family.

It's also no coincidence that Jerry's family business is in landscaping and contracting - dirt moving, essentially - and that in his early retirement, he owns a plane.

Some things that really hit home with me - other than the McMansions, which are all over the place not far from where I've lived when in the USA - the Washington, DC Metro area. The detailed, and spot-on, descriptions of that particular slice of Long Island, the one that stretches from Queens - where the families of the Hispanic domestic workers in the book all live - to just about the middle of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. I'm from upstate originally - think Culinary Institute of America, SUNY New Paltz and Vassar College area - so didn't spend a lot of time down there, but I'm still deeply familiar with the region. It's noteable that Lee grew up in Westchester County - not far from another favorite author of mine, Gish Jen. Considering the divide of wealth between Westchester County and eastern Long Island, it's rather amusing to see someone of seemingly well-to-do roots writing about a very middle-class slice of the New York 'burbs. The details, though, made me sorta-kinda-an-eensy-bit miss home. The loud cars, the starter homes, the backyards going to seed, the rowhouses with patios covered in poorly-tended potted plants with white flecked dirt coagulating in the bottom. That's it right there.

Just look at the photo of Lee on the back cover of any of his books - black-and-white, Ivory Tower Liberal (woohoo! I'm one of those!) blazer and sweater vest with Thoughtful Pose and Serious Expression - this looks like a guy who grew up in Westchester and went to the "best schools" (which he did - whatever 'best' means anyway), not someone used to blue-collar grit and dirt-moving. I appreciate, though, that clearly he is.

Taiwan has made me a less PC person 'less PC' doesn't mean 'less tolerant' in any way, though I do have chronic foot-in-mouth disease. For this reason, I liked that Lee didn't gloss over the racial slurs one would have heard in the '60s and '70s. Not that I'd ever use one, but it's true that people did, and there's no sense hiding from that in literature. A strong case for not forgetting how society used to be, so we don't become that way again.

Something I wish society would hurry up and do for women, but that's to follow.

Though Lee does not entirely leave behind his own Korean roots - his fear of being a 'boutique international writer' may have some grounds in truth here: every Asian in the novel is Korean. The New York area is not scant on Asians of all descents, even the farfetched: Uzbek, anyone? - so I'm not quite sure why that is unless a.) Lee was making a statement about how no matter how hard you try, and how American-Assimilated you become, you're not going to get away from your roots or b.) he wasn't paying attention. I doubt b, considering the level of detail in the rest of the novel.

I also liked that the only good, true, sensible person in the book seems to be Rita, Jerry's ex-girlfriend. We need more female literary characters who know the deal on life instinctively while others stagger and claw around for the cave entrance. I liked the emphasis on roots, and yet not-on-roots, being a 3rd-generation-part-Armenian-American-and-eleventy-millionth-generation-Polish-American; despite the fact that I've never even been to Poland or Armenia, both of those cultural traditions run strong in my family.

Anyway, like Aloft, there's no great organization here, but that novel had a denouement so I suppose this post should, too. And I suppose the previous paragraph was it. On to Julia.

Monday, October 19, 2009

King Boat: The Fiery Finale

That's us after staying up all night. We went to bed at 7am that morning (not long after this photo was taken).

Anyway, here is a set of photos from the final night of the King Boat Festival. In the previous pictures, the boat barely featured because it was barely visible - not easy to see behind a big fence covered with the wishes (written on wooden blocks) of festivalgoers. Instead, there were dangki, tall god costumes and bajiajiang to snare one's attention.

This time around, the boat took center stage. So here goes...the final night of King Boat Festival 2009:

I'm sorry but this balloon is TERRIFYING.

There is something inherently funny about taking one's picture in front of some large thing that's on fire, you see.


King Boat I Take II

Some more photos from the first weekend of King Boat. I promise later to sit down and spend some real time making captions and explaining things about the festival. It's really fascinating stuff, but I've just been really busy lately.

I'll also post photos of the second weekend, in which the boat is burned, soon. Tonight, even. I promise!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

King Boat Festival (王船節) - First Weekend

So the first weekend of Donggang's triennial King Boat Festival was last weekend (the boat burning, by the way, is this Friday so if you are in the area, you should stop by. The processional with the boat starts Friday afternoon and the burning is at night. Late. Like 1am).

I'll edit and add captions later - for now, it's late so sit back and enjoy some photographs. More to come - I took over 700 pictures in 2 days! Stop by later if you want notes on what these things actually are.