What Do We Expect When We Go to the Movies?

I have let this week fly by without a post. So here’s a quick one that deals with my beloved Oscars, just in time for Sunday evening’s festivities.

I adore watching the Academy Awards. In years gone by I regularly saw at least three quarters of the nominated films by the time the gala night rolled around.

Of course, I never accurately predicted who would win most of the awards. (That honor at my annual Oscar party usually went to the wonderful Charlotte Thwing, who didn’t see any of the films but read People magazine religiously.) I felt comfortable talking about the films and the awards, however.

This year I have seen only two of the nominated films, Hugo and The Artist.

Of course, this is an improvement over last year, when I had seen only one film, How to Train Your Dragon. Statistically, it’s a HUGE improvement.

Nevertheless, I can’t indulge in any Oscar picks. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about my reaction to The Artist.

I’ve been a child of the movies for as long as I can remember. Going to see my first film is the only thing I can remember from the entire year in which I was four. And I drove my mother crazy in my youth staying indoors to watch vintage films on television when the sun was shining.

I was on the film committee in college and both of my graduate schools. So I learned to analyze film intellectually as well as react to it emotionally. Nevertheless, for me, emotion was and is always paramount.

So I was surprised to be a little disappointed at first during The Artist. I wasn’t as disappointed as the two elderly women who were the only other people at that particular screening. Both of them said they fell asleep during the film; apparently, dialogue is the only thing that keeps them going in the movies. And The Artist pays tribute to the era of silent film by eschewing dialogue.

(I’m always amazed at the expectations and reactions of my neighbors in movie theaters. I’ll never forget the teenage Leonardo DiCaprio fans directly behind my sister-in-law and me at our viewing of the film Titanic who exclaimed, “Why on earth is the band still playing?” I had a sinking–sorry!–feeling that they had had no idea going into the film that the ship was doomed.)

I was disappointed because The Artist didn’t fit the expectations I had brought to the film, expectations I didn’t even realize I had. I was careful not to read any reviews before going to the theater since I thought the reviews would shape my viewing of the film. I didn’t count on the short previews I saw over and over again on television.

Those previews indicated that the film was funny and lighthearted. And so despite my desire to watch The Artist unshaped, as it were, I entered the theater expecting a comedy.

The Artist has its comedic moments, but at heart it is a melodrama. Most of the film dwells on the downfall of silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) rather than on his romance with perky soon-to-be talking-film star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).

Jean Dujardin's character in "The Artist" on the skids (with the adorable Uggie)

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE melodrama. Some of my best film friends are melodramas. And this one even had a cute dog. How could I not enjoy it? Tears streamed down my face frequently as I watched.

Nevertheless, I had been so conditioned by my expectations that it took me most of the film to realize that I WAS enjoying it, that it was giving me all the emotional catharsis that a film is supposed to.

Perhaps my confusion while watching the film was a function of my going to the movies so seldom. If I had not built up such a stash of capital in my moviegoing savings account, I might not have had such an enormous investment as a viewer of the film. And I probably would have relaxed and enjoyed it a lot sooner.

I will try to indulge in more frequent moviegoing and see whether that makes me more open to letting the movie, rather than the publicity surrounding it, shape my reaction.

And I will remember that melodrama is one of the things I expect, and enjoy, in film. In 1929, the first year in which Academy Awards were given out, the uber melodrama Sunrise (one of my favorite films of all time) won the award for “unique and artistic production,” a prize The Artist would win this year for sure if the category hadn’t been abolished in 1930.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that I have decided that I would recommend The Artist to just about anyone. My only real criticism with the film is aesthetic: having made the smart decision to shoot on film, director Michel Hazanavicius shot the picture on color film stock, which was then translated into black and white.

As a result, the black-and-white images didn’t have the gorgeous, shimmering crispness one associates with the classic films Hazanavicius was trying to evoke.

I have a feeling he used color stock because no one supplies black-and-white stock anymore. I was sad, nevertheless.

I still enjoyed the film, not just for its superlative acting and charming homage to old Hollywood (I can’t recall seeing Mary Pickford’s bed in any other recent movies) but also for the ways in which it reminded me that not getting what you expect isn’t all bad.

What do YOU expect at the movies, readers? Do you want to be moved, stimulated, entertained? And does it worry you when a picture doesn’t precisely line up with your expectations?

I ended up looking back at "The Artist" with a smile ALMOST as big as Jean Dujardin's when he found himself in Mary Pickford's bed.

Coming next week: More on the cookbook conference, and a NAME for my kitten. (We are down to two names now so we ought to settle on one for sure by then!)

Country Mouse in the Big City

My city hostess Bobbie and I are both hams.

City folk—particularly New York City folk—may want to avert their eyes from this little essay.

I’m writing about how much I ADORE the city. I know those who live there may sometimes take their environment for granted. I don’t, however.

Last week I spent a few days in New York at a cookbook conference. I’ll write more about the conference itself once I finish going through the copious notes I took. When that time comes I promise not to subject readers to a blow-by-blow (bite-by-bite?) description.

For now, I thought I’d just share my excitement about New York.

When I was small going to New York was a big deal. I’m old enough (shudder!) to recall putting on a hat and white gloves to go into the city as a little girl. In my mind’s eye I can still see my reflection in a department store window—shiny patent-leather shoes, pink dress and matching coat, white gloves, white bonnet, big smile.

Times have changed. This time around I arrived in jeans, although I did wear a little makeup. Despite my casual wardrobe I was again smiling as I stepped off the bus at 33rd Street. Going to New York is still a big deal, even without the gloves and hat.

Within my first five minutes in the city I saw more people on the street than live in my hometown of Hawley, Massachusetts.

My friend Peter and I sped through traffic in taxis—first to my friend Bobbie’s house to drop off my luggage, then to Peter’s high-rise apartment, where his dogs Lucca and Marco greeted me and led me to the window to admire the view.

Over the next few days, in between conference sessions, I spent time with old friends. Peter and his partner Ken took me out to a cozy yet elegant Indian dinner.

I shared onion soup and show-business gossip with Jani, my former colleague at the Paley Center for Media, who spent much of our time together looking up potential publishers and agents for me. (Jani is the Paley Center’s head of research and never stops thinking about how to use her knowledge to help friends and colleagues.)

And I received love, food, and a little too much motherly advice from my hostess, Bobbie.

My college roommate Amy used to say that Bobbie and her late husband Buddy were the best excuse for New York City that she could think of. This was at a time when New York’s image was slightly tarnished in the public eye. Buddy and Bobbie imbued the city with humor and restored its glamour.

They dressed well, talked loudly, laughed and sang infectiously, and were intensely interested in the people around them. It would have been hard to find people more colorful or charming.

If New York still needed an excuse today, Bobbie would provide it even without Buddy, who has been dead for 20 years. She is a passionate city dweller, going to theatrical or musical events just about every day (sometimes twice a day) and expressing her opinion of every one with gusto.

Staying with her was both fun and maddening since Bobbie likes to express her opinions about people as well as performances. My coat was too light. My shoes were unsuitable for snow (of which we had but a few flurries). I drank unhealthy beverages. (Diet soda is my only real vice.) My luggage was disorganized.

When I told her that I was trying to revive my career and make more money this year she said flatly, “You don’t have a career, and you’re too old to start one.” Ouch.

Somehow—probably because I wasn’t staying with her permanently—I managed to ignore her criticisms and even find them slightly endearing. They came from love, after all, and were intended to be constructive. And I enjoyed catching up on her family’s news, talking about the theater, and hearing her sing Stephen Sondheim tunes as I was dressing in the mornings.

To and from my destinations in the city I generally walked or rode the bus. I know the subway is faster, but when one is only in New York for a little while one likes to see everything.

During one late-night bus ride I marveled at the diversity of the city. My fellow passengers were a very large man in a wheelchair, singing off key at the top of his lungs; a woman in a red coat talking in Chinese on her cell phone; and a fur-clad woman discussing job prospects (in English) on another cell phone.

I was the only one looking out the window at the people, dogs, and lighted buildings we passed. I was tickled at my own silence.

And I loved the fact that at any hour of the day or night people are bustling about in the city.

I remember only one exception to this activity. I was working in Manhattan on September 11, 2011, commuting back and forth from my mother’s house in New Jersey.

No one was allowed to enter or leave Manhattan on the night of the 11th so I stayed with my brother and his wife in their apartment.

The next day my office was closed. I learned that a few trains were running from Penn Station to New Jersey so I hoofed it down Seventh Avenue to catch one.

As I walked down the long street I heard absolute silence. I saw no one else walking. No buses or taxis passed me.

I got to Times Square—Times Square, which is filled with people even in the middle of the night!—and saw nothing but bare pavement and a few pieces of paper fluttering in the breeze. Storefronts had their grills firmly shut. I felt as though I had stepped into a post-Apocalyptic science-fiction film.

It took days for people to start moving in the city again. And it took months for Times Square to regain its bustle.

So now when I see people, cars, and buses moving about Manhattan I can’t take the city’s activity for granted. It is something to be savored and celebrated.

I’m still smiling as I type this, and I’ve been home for two days.

My soon-to-be kitten and I wish everyone a Happy Valentine's Day. Be ours!

Introducing “What’s a Girl to Do?”

One thing I’ve never been is bored. I always have more than enough to do. And heaven knows I have more than enough interests, particularly professionally. I like to write about a multitude of topics—food, family, popular culture, music, history…….

Unfortunately, while I’m not bored I’m afraid lately I have become boring.

I’ve spent the last month or so trying to catch up on writing projects. Maybe I shouldn’t be catching up on more than one at a time, but I tend to be a multitasker with a vengeance.

In some ways this catch-up time has been and continues to be an amazing luxury. I spent so much of the past few years taking care of my mother that I seldom had time to work on long-term projects. Come to think of it, I seldom had time to work on short-term projects either.

My work is important to me. It seems unlikely that I will have children at this point so my writing is what will be left when I die.

I’m afraid, however, that my recent work hasn’t made my conversation scintillating or my horizons broader. And that HAS GOT TO CHANGE.

To remedy this blandness, ironically, I’m starting a new writing project. This blog. I figure that if I address myself to an audience weekly I’ll have to think of something interesting to say at least once every seven days.

And when one says something interesting, I find, one becomes more interesting.

The dilemma at the top of this blog is the one I face every day in my life. Given my varied professional interests—did I mention that I am a singer as well as a writer about all sorts of things?—how do I decide what to do each day, each week, and each year?

How do I organize my life so that I can honor and enjoy all my interests and somehow focus myself enough get something done and make a living? (Orphans don’t make a lot of money.)

I hope that this organization will honor my late mother Jan as well, whom many readers will recall from last year’s blog, Pulling Taffy. She was stubborn, occasionally exasperating, and busy beyond belief. But she was never, ever boring. And she had a huge zest for life. I’d be happy to think I’ve inherited some of that.

For now, I’m thinking about focus. And … I’m going to a cookbook conference in New York later this week! I’ll report back on that next week. Meanwhile, please hang in there with me. I hope as the weeks go by we’ll have a few good topics to chew on. I KNOW we’ll have a few laughs.

I should mention that my dear friend Peter came up with the name of this blog. (He loves naming things.) Thank you, Peter, for this and everything else you do for me!