The regular guy, the acquired taste, and where we were on 9/11

Hullo, my dear doughty friends:

I am happier to be doing this again than you can imagine.

Time to time, I get tagged with being, shall we say, a mite removed from How The Real World Works. It still amuses my husband to watch me at a soda machine trying to get WATER, which is mysteriously behind the Pepsi-thingie, and which I invariably cock-up.  “You were not born knowing  that,” I point out, defensively. .

You might also consider the act that cemented him forever in the hearts and minds of the two younger daughters.  (The eldest?  Oh, she introduced us.)  We have just had our  34th anniversary, but if you ask those two today for the moment this boy friend was absolutely home free as a serious contender, it would have been when he off-handedly took them to the Mill Valley McDonald’s.

Goggle-eyed, like a pair of Dickens’ starvlings, they took in the whole yellow and red wonderfulness. God only knows what they ate, but I know what they said:  “Don’t ever tell mom.”

Why???” 

“We’ve never been to McDonald’s.”

“EVER?”

“Nope”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I’ve never had a Coke either.  What can I say — our paths just never crossed..

As he and I threw in together, I still made okay food, plus a few oddities from my mother’s Vassar-inflected repertoire: prune souffle, popovers. Meanwhile, he became a rampaging kitchen adventurer. His smoker — full of everything, anything — was only the beginning.  One Thanksgiving, after studying Julia like a medical student, he boned the turkey,  invisibly reassembled it, and cushioned it on the stuffing before it went into the oven.  Please do not ever tell him you have a large back yard; he’s been yearning to dig a fire pit and roast a whole pig for all the deprived years of our marriage.

(When I began writing this, I thought it was about a regular-type fella corrupted by long exposure to the rowdy irrepressible Irish. Standing back a bit, I see that we actually provided the backdrop and the excuse for someone whose tastes were impressively out of the mainstream from the get-go.)

Underpinning everything was my husband’s take on hospitality, which I discovered was more deeply Chinese than either one of us imagined. You thought the Italians invented Abbondanza!?   Marco Polo stole it from the Chinese, after a look at Kublai Khan’s fridges, groaning with leftover take-out.

Given its head, the Abbondanza philosophy goes way beyond gusto, beyond food/drink/music/lighting/more food/can I freshen your drink?  It’s also portal-to-portal nurturing, and my husband does it as well as he does because you can’t catch him at it. Mostly, it creates a sense of companionship.

Fortunately, companionship was the cornerstone of how a motley handful of Americans found themselves in the French countryside on September 11th. Some time in early 2001, our remarkable and enduring friend Milt Moscowitz invited a mix of family plus old and older friends to a remote and glorious French chateau — largesse from his Japanese businessman-friend who’d just had it renovated.  Milt’s offer was simple: you’re invited. All you have to do is get yourselves there.

We were the last pair to arrive, September 10th, driving south from Dijon into the Burgundy countryside until, finally,our headlights picked out the chateau’s creamy white outlines. The party was well begun. It wasn’t until the next day, after lunch in a nearby village that my husband found that he (or, ummm,  I, the passport-keeper) didn’t have his passport. We hustled back to the chateau.

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I was up in our room, frantically shaking out every stitch we owned, when the chateau’s gatekeeper, in great distress, came to the heavy door, a small TV in his arms. All he could say was that something horrible had happened, “In your country.”.

The TV produced only snow and unintelligible sound. Calls to the States were hopelesly jammed. Without cable or internet, our only link to the world was the chateau’s phone line —- and its small home FAX machine.

We called the sole person we knew in France, Bob Swaim.  A permanent American transplant to Paris, a movie director with a bent for cutting edge technology, Bob was providentially perfect for this crisis. He began pumping wire service stories into our FAX machine — literal reams of them, piling up in uncut lengths on the floor.

The moment was surreal. In this exquisitely replicated blue and pink Provencal dining room, we grabbed sections, 8 feet, 10 feet, of unspooling text and began devouring the words, passing around the pages, trying — and failing —  to comprehend the dimensions of what we were reading. Nearly half our party were New Yorkers. Milt’s stepson, a San Francisco bond trader, had close ties to colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald.

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It was only after midnight, when my husband strung a wire across the top of a door for an antenna and attached it to a dinky clock radio, that we heard the first English language accounts of the day from the BBC.

Next morning, Le Monde was thoughtful enough to publish our first (and my permanent) images of the poor souls who jumped, mid-air. Trying for another approach, we piled into our cars to find a hotel with television in the rooms. One hotelier, not deceived by our French, let us all into his family’s private quarters where, crowded next to his dogs, we watched CNN report about American Flight 93’s crash and read the crawl with more names of more dead.  We thanked him, dried our eyes and left.

One dear pair in our group, long standing French travelers, knew and loved a small nearby town, so we all repaired to its greenness. And as the two of them took in the moment and we sat on logs and tailgates and such, my husband unexpectedly produced cheese, baguettes, thin sliced ham and wine. With cloth napkins and glasses. When he had gotten it, or where, I have no idea. All I remember is the beatitude of that meal, appearing, as always, without fuss, but with full knowledge of how much it was needed.

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The Wonder That Is Margaret

Never, ever dismiss a grassroots movement (just ask Elizabeth Warren). Or the indignation of film critics, denied the chance to see what one of their clan has called “One of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders.”  The result has been a flurry of petitions, blog-wails and unkind aspersions directed at Fox Seachlight, from here at home and as far away as the U.K.

The fallout in Seattle has been that Kenneth Lonergan’s breathtaking Margaret got a press screening and a one-week run in one theatre, SIFF’s Uptown (backed up by no ads anywhere.)

Here’s where critics come in: with 3 ½ stars from the Seattle Times’ Moira McDonald and a strong pick-up review-let at the Weekly – and, no doubt, a buzz in every cranny of Scarecrow Video – Margaret’s healthy weekend grosses have earned it a second week, through February 9th.

The tidy among us should probably know that Margaret is almost as gloriously unruly as Anna Paquin’s Lisa herself, and that we will be following her at almost eye level for 149 minutes, as Pacquin virtually irradiates the screen.

Lisa’s divorced mother Jane (J. Smith-Cameron, simply superb) is a successful New York theatre actress and Lisa is at home in Jane’s close-knit, seductively unstable scene, and with her deeply ironic private school classmates.

Her screenwriter-father (played by Lonergan), now lives in California with a new lady, but at least makes an attempt at being in his kids’ lives. Even living with a younger brother hasn’t altered Lisa’s world view that compromise in any form is as contemptible as anyone who suggests it.  Ah yes, total idealism.

So nothing has remotely prepared her for a real-life bloody tragedy, when her flirtatiousness distracts a bus driver enough to run over a pedestrian. Slowly, then with mounting despair (and volume), Lisa sets about to do the right thing.

Which right thing?  That answer gets more muddled with each new character Lisa drags to the stage of her personal mini-opera: her mother, the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), the victim’s closest friend (a scathingly skeptical Jeannie Berlin), the police, the MTA, potential heirs, at least two lawyers, and a concerned English teacher at Lisa’s private school (Matt Damon.)

                                         

None of them will emerge unscathed, Lisa most of all.  By turns she becomes damaging, hotly destructive, sexually predatory, and genuinely dangerous to everyone around her, until with her every good intention in ruins, she finally faces her own part in the tragedy. (Interestingly enough, at an opera, the irresistibly gorgeous Tales of Hoffman.)

So, is it a cinematic wonder?  Damn straight, considering that Lonergan’s skills are deeper, broader and more nuanced than they were when he made You Can Count On Me, his unforgettable writing-directing debut 8 years ago. He seems to be an actor’s director, since every one in Margaret’s huge cast is miraculously good, and his intimate New York canvas includes the theatre and its denizens; the vagaries of the city’s private schools; teenage, both general and specific; opera and its followers, and post 9/11 America as viewed from abroad.

Lonergan’s ear may have become even more sharp: for the hearty, hollow phone chat of divorced fathers; for the escalating state of war between mothers and 17-year old daughters and, especially, for panic-inducing exchanges between teenagers:

She:  “Did any of that get inside me?”

He:    “It’s okay. . .Odds are overwhelming that it’s okay.”

But an ear is nothing without a soul, even in its excesses and our own struggle to put up with Lisa’s wicked stubbornness, Margaret is humane to a humbling degree.  (Who else but someone with Lonergan’s depths of understanding could even conceive of a positive mini-epic with teenagers at its heart?)

It is noticeably dated.  A classroom donnybrook, as a discussion spills over into the bigotry that a fellow student, of Syrian descent, has felt first-hand, in the wake of 9/11 is one of many reminders that Margaret was made when that event was still raw.

You ’ll notice that Matt Damon is in Bourne fighting trim and the hilarious Matthew Broderick, his teaching colleague, is positively coltish.  But the bus accident’s gory chaos and pandemonium around it is the most shocking reminder of that date, as much now as when it was shot.

The film’s exact time of 149 minutes was achieved by Thelma Schoonmaker (who by now should simply be called Legendary Editor.)  She arrived when  Martin Scorsese stepped in to help with the impasse between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight, who having watched their picture grow beyond its 2-hour mark, finally agreed to 150 minutes and not a second more.  Bless them all.