i can be such a busy fool——with all the many little things i do instead so i won’t have to face my kitchen. truth is i was in need of a film like this, a celebration not only of gustatory pleasures but also of the toil and hidden treasures within the routine of cooking.
(an epic in its own league)——
spanning four generations, from the perspective of a narrator who kept hidden, for as long as possible, her affiliation with the story’s characters, and narrated in the fabulist style (magical realism) popularized by spanish and south american filmmakers, with a lineage as far back as luis buñuel——this film’s story is a focus on family and tradition, and although unambitious with its significance on a national scale, its proportions and intrigues are that of an epic.
(mein mutter, meine vater, mein frau, mein kind——these are, even at the end of the longest day the characters that matter the most in any story about the spectacles of human life. and those are the simple characters that make up the 105 minute length of this film.)
how’s this for guilty pleasures: watching Sweet November (2001) at the start of every november since 2010—and in january? well, Chocolat (2000): that sultry binoche-depp duo (to remind hollywood that binoche is bilingual and the rest of world that depp wasn’t just a cash crop for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean franchise); it was as well a precursor to Eat Pray Love—but without all that pray; in summa summarum, it’s a cozy wintertime cuisine-art-film, just shy of soapiness. so too did its mexican precedent Like Water for Chocolate veer at times in the direction of soap-operatic drama by way of he-said-she-said intrigues—but its scope, it’s intergenerational conflicts, were its saving grace. in both films, to make it to the end was to head immediately in the direction of your kitchen to play out your little scene of home chef artiste.
i have in mind the hilarious length of tita’s knitted shawl: particularly that scene of her leaving for an insane asylum after locking herself in a dovecot for days, her carriage trailed for several hundred meters by a shawl she was shown knitting earlier in the film. (continuity is another impressive feature in this film: another example is food being prepared in on scene and served in several scenes later). the camera is fixed as that carriage pulls away and in the shawl’s length suggests the intricacy of tita’s inner solitary life, the expression of which is gagged by her devotion to a strict matriarch.
i’m reminded as well of william wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress, starring olivia de havilland whose character catherine persevered under the strict order of a patriarch and married her solitary hours to needlework. it’s such a peculiar way of describing a general instinct for devotion—not only of the hundreds of hours stitched into fabric, but also the cocoon of wool that the finished work will wrap around a recluse whose first instinct is to recline, to lie horizontal and away from every strict regimental order.
that aforementioned instinct for devotion is the kind that, at a greater intensity, might have found relief in a strict religious order. i too have a hefty shawl of that sort— knitted by a previous roommate’s mother—it nevertheless is for me a relic of the intensity with which i was once devoted to religious observance. what any born again atheist will tell you is that long after the synapses that once believed in godliness has ceased firing, the talent for devotion which one has cultivated—through hours and hours of sitting in the kneel of prayer—never really goes away. it may instead be transferred to non-religious devotion with a knack for physical representation of the tremendously intricate landscape of a hermetically contained, preciously pious, inner world.
(creepy doctor alert)——
there was a quality in the intensity of dr. brown’s stare that can be described, even in the most sympathetic terms, as discomforting… yes it was too much of an obvious choice that the costume department fitted him with a pair of round wire frames (why not a top hat while you’re at it?) but even without the glasses the eagerness that protruded with a luminous quality from his face would still be a stereotype of every med student soon-to-be-spouse-killer. but like with every character is this film, his had more than that one dimension; most remarkable was his bilinguality: a texan doctor fluent in spanish and spoke his english with a slightly austrian accent—though he exuded the vibe of the type that learned spanish only for the purpose of utilizing it in a marriage proposal. nevertheless the story achieved its most clairevoyant philosophical insights through his dialogue, especially his lecture about elemental phosphorus as a metaphor for our need to be ignited.
his over-enthusiastic english-accented-spanish reminded me of the cultural relationship between one of the world’s most dangerous border—between america and mexico. the prevalent sentiment conveyed by the current news coverage of immigration crisis around that border is that the cultural differences are just as strong as the geographical barriers. but films like these remind us just how much fiction is required to maintain the concept of cultural differences between the american south and the border regions of mexico. a couple years ago i spent some time on a ranch in patagonia arizona very similar to that of tita’s family (the Windsong Ranch belonging to the kielburger brothers) and i recall much the cultural compass was more in the direction of mexico than towards middle-america. dr. brown’s character was a manifestation of that sentiment, as was the lack of enthusiasm conveyed by tita’s family on the prospect of relocating to america, even to escape the desolations of revolutionary conflict.
(The Two Sisters of Persephone by Sylvia Plath)——
the depth conveyed, of tita’s character, owed as much lumi cavazos’ timid and wide-eyed performance as to the contrasting effect in comparison to her more extroverted sisters. one such comparison is to gertrudis (played by the captivating claudette maillé) who was in many ways the opposite of tita’s colourless reservations. gertrudis’ fiery passions are literally flammable (the steam from her bath water sets a outhouse on fire, for example); her hair, rust-red, was a pampered mane that very nearly communicated to the touch the rapidity by which her senses are enraptured by the slightest stimulation (the most potent and persistent of those stimulations being tita’s cooking).
this peculiar kind of contrast, between two sisters of opposite dispositions was also the subject of sylvia plath’s poem The Two Sisters of Persephone:
In her dark wainscoted room
The first works problems on
A mathematical machine.
Dry ticks mark time [...]
Bronzed as earth, the second lies,
Hearing ticks blown gold
Like pollen on bright air. Lulled
Near a bed of poppies, [...]
Freely become sun's bride, the latter
Grows quick with seed.
Grass-couched in her labor's pride,
She bears a king. Turned bitter
And sallow as any lemon,
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, yet no woman;
the comparison i’m making might seem at first very beffiting: tita being akin to persephone’s sister who “In her dark wainscoted room’’ is a ‘’wry virgin to the last” and gertrudis is very much that “bronzed as earth” “Grass-couched in her labor’s pride” type. but at second thought, tita’s inner self—that part tucked neatly out of sight of the judging prying eyes of a domineering mother (stalking her even after death)—is as spirited and potent as gertrudis. the tragedy that unfold when she finally relieves her yearnings owes more to her lack of cultivation in the exercise of her passions than an insufficiency of passion…
what a brilliant finale that was, with reference to the physical properties of phosphorus described earlier by dr. brown: of our need for the spark generated by someone else’s being. the truth revealed, by the most indirect channel of showing rather than exposition, is that if one waits too long for this spark, if our matchbox remains damp for too long, that is: if one goes too long without actualizing the capacity for affection—to, all of a sudden, be so cathartically ignited after so long a pensive and desperate eon of expectations can be, as in the case of tita, fatal.
that is yet another one of my belated instincts: that any kind of strength, if it is to be lasting and sustainable strength; any kind of health, if it is to be health at all; any kind of joy——is achieved incrementally.
there are no miracles, no gods from the machine, love is always an accumulation of loves. what matters is that one has grown accustomed to the exercise of that apparatus for love—and in general for living, which our bodies are the play-field of—to expect of life, and of love, such sudden revelations and improbable deus ex machinas, is to me the first proof that a person lacks even the most fundamental instinct for nutrition…
(a culinary tradition)——-
the overwhelming urge is say this film wasn’t just about food—of course that is literally true—but conceptually speaking, attempting to reap significance from the story that is entirely separate from the culinary spectacles tying the film together is to altogether blanch the film of any meaningful colour. what about the cooking is celebrated here?—to be sure, not merely that a meal has been prepared by someone especially skilled at the delicacies of doing it well—rather, it’s a celebration of the slow, reluctant, ineluctable continuation of a culinary tradition that is seemingly independent from what is a tumultuous exchange of intergenerational quarrels and disagreements surround other more spectacular kinds of tradition—it’s especially significant that a cookbook is the lone survivor of the fiery and tragic finale,
it was in a very different sense did Nietzsche say that “We must make it up to our children that we were the children of our parents”—yet, no surer way is such a redemption possible than with the cultivation of a culinary tradition that we ourselves might not have been gifted. the surest way because of the incomparable regularity with which this particular kind of tradition is observed. the assortment of the same combination of ingredients enjoyed by generations divided by a protracted span of time and an even more protracted expanse of moral valuations is for me the basis of any kind of tradition. indeed, a culinary tradition is very much immune to intergenerational squabble: if we are to be disunited as a family, let there be at least one tome to which we are all bound, thus speaks any serious instinct for cultivation. who has so far sufficiently venerated what a tremendous accomplishment it would be to establish a culinary breviary?…
(in summa summarum)———
in summa summarum, i give this film 4.46 frilly bowties out of 5.