A Movie and a Journey

I’m not quite sure why I still get Parents magazine: it was reassuring when the babies were young toddlers, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it now that they’re 3 & 7. All that advice about pregnancy fitness and how to tell your boss that you’re not coming back to work after all (ha!) or how worried you really should be about the hidden perils of [insert your kid’s favorite food or activity] feels very distant, thank goodness, from my life now.

Still, I was really excited to see a short feature in the March 2010 issue on great foreign films for kids and families. I depend on DVDs for some family quiet time and I’m always looking for cool stuff to show the girls. They got The Red Balloon, White Mane (on one DVD) and Paddle to the Sea (about our beloved St. Lawrence River!) for Christmas. It’s true that they prefer iCarly and Yo Gabba Gabba! (who wouldn’t?), but still, I feel better about screen time if some of it is imaginative and beautiful. (Yo Gabba Gabba is pretty awesome, I must say…)

Less excited to read this, about My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro; Japan 1988): “You can explain to your child that the Japanese culture is rich in superstition.”

Really? Is superstition the big lesson about Japan that we’re taking away? I understand that it’s hard to write a “Cultural Highlight” for each of six films in 20 words or less, but I think we can do better than that.

And don’t bother trying to find the list on the Parents magazine website which is so cluttered with ads and surveys that it’s like descending into the Sunday supplement of your local newspaper only to find the comics are missing.

Still, the movies recommend sound great and my girls will be getting a couple for Easter, I think. I wish they had included a Spanish film. I combed the web for suggestions, but all the most popular Spanish films are dubbed Disney movies. I found a big list of Spanish-language films here, and, combing through it, some

Here are the recommendations:
  • My Neighbor Totoro (Japan 1988) best for ages 4+
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002) 10+
  • Children of Heaven (Iran 1997) 6+
  • The Red Balloon (France 1956) 4+
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolia 2005) 4+
  • Azur and Asmar (The Arabic Middle East [? I have no idea what that means?!] 2006) 6+ (imdb tells me it’s a Belgian film) 

I’d love to hear any others you’d add to the list—Spanish or no!

In Memory of Eric Rohmer


It would have been 1981 or 1982. I was in high school and babysitting on a weekend night for my cool yuppie neighbors. The parents came back all excited from their screening of “Claire’s Knee,” eager to tell me that I reminded them of Claire.

To this day, Puritan that I am, I cannot quite imagine myself into the position of a young girl who excites a middle-aged man’s lust. I was a bit freaked out by the comparison at the time. Did that mean that Mr. X…? But Mrs. X was giggling, too? It seemed too gross, too complicated to take in, so I avoided that film for years.

But, still, they were very cool. And I filed Eric Rohmer away as a director to watch. When I did, I fell in love.

More than any other film director, Rohmer is mine: I love his films and I love his women. I don’t know the Six Moral Tales as well as later films, so I was surprised to read in the Times obituary that his characteristic subject is “a man who is married or committed to a woman finds himself tempted to stray but is ultimately able to resist.” In that telling, he sounds like such a male director, but to me, his films have always seemed really friendly to women.

But then, the truth is, I identify with his heroines: nervous women, liable to talk to much, women who wear no make-up, and whose beauty varies tremendously from shot to shot—just as one’s own beauty does. Rohmer always lets you see that his actresses are beautiful. He lets them know it, too. But he also shows them doubting it in moments of stress or shows their beauty and confidence failing them just when they want it. Beauty is not everything, of course, but this is film—French film—and it’s so visual. And, for Rohmer, that raw, imperfect, eccentric beauty serves as a visual metaphor for worthiness—both to oneself and to others. It does not hurt that the women he directed are clearly very very smart: their beauty emanates from their intelligence.


My favorite is “Le Rayon Vert” or “Summer.” It perfectly captures so many of my own vacationing dilemmas in my twenties and thirties. A young woman, newly single, must quickly make plans for a vacation during the national August holiday. She waffles from neediness—she’ll just go to the Alps and pop in on her ex—to friendliness—she’ll just be an easygoing add-on in a big family house—to bravery—she’ll go off to the shore alone. Alone on the shore, her bravery is intermittent. She is rude to cute men and kind to the wrong people. Her loneliness betrays her until she figures out how to be alone. It’s such a painful, uneven, crazily raw performance. It does so many things that an American mainstream chick flick just cannot approach: it allows you to see a young woman’s loneliness, including some of the humiliations of that loneliness, without humiliating her. It shows that loneliness as a mood--her boyfriend just dumped her, after all—not a condition.  I cannot get enough of it.

Last spring, Lauren hosted Jonathan Baumbach introducing “An Autumn Tale,” a late Rohmer film that shares a lot with “Summer.” I could take or leave the pretentious introduction, but the film itself was a glorious masterpiece: beautiful and interesting narrative, full of rich talk. It—and Rohmer himself—strikes for me, the perfect balance of intellectual filmmaking: still enough of a movie to be fun on a date, but provocative enough to inspire an essay.

Eric Rohmer died earlier this month at the age of 89. Marina Bradbury’s charming tribute includes this memory of her one visit to him a few years back:
"Excusez-moi," he said politely, and ducked into the next room, shuffling back moments later with a pile of coloured exercise books. He explained excitedly that the colour of each matched the palette of each particular film. For example, yellow in La Boulangère de Monceau (1962) reflects the colour of bread, whilst blue in Pauline à la Plage (1983) represents the sea.
And you can read A. O. Scott’s appraisal of his career here. What a wonderful legacy he has left behind.

Nina Paley’s Sita!


Taking my mom’s advice and giving myself a day to enjoy some time to myself last Friday, I went to see Nina Paley’s animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues” on the strength of A. O. Scott’s enthusiastic review in the Times. (There's an earlier positive review here.)


It’s such a treat. Just look at the art!

The movie parallels Nina Paley’s own failed marriage, precipitated by her (now ex-) husband’s move to India for a job, with the miserable and humiliating plight of Sita, the wife of Ram, as detailed in the Ramayana.

There is so much to love here: the art is exuberant and funny and the improbable (and slightly wacky) parallel works because it’s not forced, because it’s treated with wry feminist humor, and because the varied drawing styles and vivid, smart writing (especially the chorus of three Indonesian shadow puppets who appear from time to time to bicker over their imperfect memories of the story of Sita) keeps it lively.

We mostly follow poor Sita, who follows Ram into exile in a dangerous forest where she is kidnapped. When Ram finally rescues her, he forces her to undergo a purity test (by fire), which she passes. Still doubting, he exiles the pregnant Sita a second time. She raises his children in the forest, teaching them to love Ram. These episodes of the epic humiliation of a faithful wife are intercut by the minor key and excruciating scenes of a drably drawn Nina being scolded by Dave when she arrives in India. Her exuberant hug and kiss is met with a cold: “Don’t kiss me in public! This is India!”


I have dated that guy. It stinks.

I didn’t know till afterwards that the film's distribution had been held up because, in using 20s recordings of blues singer Annette Hanshaw (whose songs are a highlight, coming out of a Betty-Boop style Sita’s mouth), she ended up owing about $50,000 in rights to others. (Don't get me started on how unfair copyright is to artists and scholars!) All the copyright nightmares—now resolved—are detailed here. They mean, happily for you, that you can watch Sita for free online! Or buy the DVD. Do it. There are so few great films by women and Nina Paley did EVERY BIT of this by herself. It's amazing.

It’s a great movie!

Rebecca Solnit inspires

I knew that I was onto something when I invited Rebecca Solnit to be the keynote speaker at the Woolf conference. I knew that her admiration for Woolf was enough: that all that is interesting about her writing would make her an inspiration to the 200 or so scholars and readers who are coming to New York in June.

Still, how exciting to read that Solnit's book on walking (that most Woolfian of topics) inspired director Astra Taylor's latest film. The 29-y.o. director of "Zizek!" wanted to make another film on philosophy, but:
If people found talking-head films uncinematic, what would they make of a talking-egghead film? “Secretly I thought it was going to be disastrous,” Ms. Taylor said in a recent interview. “I might as well do an audio interview.” Then it occurred to her that her talking heads should walk and talk. She had just read “Wanderlust,” a discursive study of the history of walking by Rebecca Solnit, and was reminded of the figure of the peripatetic philosopher, from Aristotle (who paced the Lyceum while teaching) to Kierkegaard (a proponent of thinking while walking, which he frequently did in the Copenhagen streets) to Walter Benjamin (the embodiment of the Paris flâneur). She realized that putting her subjects in motion would elicit a different kind of interview than if they were seated behind their desks in offices. This conceit became a guiding principle for a film that would attempt to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and affirm its place in the flux of everyday life.
I share this sense that walking is central to thinking. Had I more patience, I could regale you with smart reasons why, but let's leave it at:

Isn't this cool?