I saw the movie Julie & Julia last week & liked it very much. It interweaves the story of how Julia Child, the wife of a USian diplomat stationed in Paris, came to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking with the story of how Julie Powell, a twenty-nine year old woman who worked on a telephone hotline for people affected by the World Trade Center attack, came to prepare all 524 dishes in Child’s book over the course of a year and blog about doing it.
Over coffee the morning after seeing the film I noodled around the internets reading reviews and was surprised by a theme that cropped up in many of them–that the parts of the film featuring Meryl Streep as Julia Child were engaging, as was their subject, while the parts featuring Amy Adams as Julie Powell were a bore, and their subject (Powell) was at best negligible, and at worst, a narcissistic leech. Many of these reviews (some of them written by “professionals” on major sites, others by bloggers on less well-traveled sites) were distinctly snotty in tone. Roger Ebert, for example, started his review
“Did you ever want to take a three-day bus trip sitting next to Julia Child?”
and the guy at Cinema de Merde entitled his review “Get your own life” and summarized Julie and Julia thus:
[It compares] a modest woman of inner resources who accomplishes something monumental through hard work, and another who feels a lack in herself because she’s not as accomplished as she thinks she should be, and ends up accomplishing something entirely trivial that is made possible by our culture of paying attention to meaningless personal drama.
Robert Wilonsky’s review in the Village Voice is called “In praise of the Julia half of Julie and Julia”; in it he praises Streep & Child and deposits mild scorn on Powell (while tossing a crumb or two to Adams). In SFGate, Mick LaSalle goes gaga over Streep/Child and says things about Powell that I consider too churlish to repeat here.
Unlike many reviewers, I liked both the Julia story and the Julie story; I liked the entire movie, and indeed I liked both women.
Below, a few observations on the Julie/Julia story (but not a movie review proper) intermixed with some grand philosophical musings on The Meaning of Life, Snotty Reviews, Reactions to War, George Plimpton, My Own Delusions & Narcissistic Compulsions & What They Have Cost Me and Others, Roger Banister, and Writing.
UPDATE: Since originally posting this I’ve made a minor edits for clarity and emphasis. I may make a few more.
Apples and Oranges
In the snotty (& even not-so-snotty) reviews, much is made of the observation that Julie’s life story is no match for Julia’s. Julia’s heroic twelve-year effort to write & publish her cookbook remind one of nothing so much as Dr. Johnson’s heroic nine-year effort to write his dictionary–both of which books were enormously influential and are destined to stand as classics in their genres forever. Julie, on the other hand, achieved success in less than a year–when she was seven years younger than Child had been when she learned to cook. According to this interpretation, all that Powell did was cook someone else’s recipes and blog about it. Her blog developed a devoted following, slowly at first, and then exponentially, and before she had even finished cooking her way through the book she was being besieged with book and movie offers. To reviewers with this point of view, Powell has been rewarded beyond all reason merely for having come up with a gimmick.
But let me make two observations that came up in none of the more than dozen reviews I read of this movie:
1) Julia Child was rich; Julie Powell was not. When we meet Julia Child she has just arrived in France and her brand new Buick wood-paneled station wagon is being lowered off a ship from America. Throughout the movie we see her dining at fine restaurants, attending lavish parties, living in grand style. Her kitchen is large and well-equipped. She doesn’t have a job; presumably her husband’s salary (perhaps supplemented by family money?) brought in more than enough dough.
When we meet Julie Powell she’s riding in a crummy Jeep Wrangler, moving to a dumpy, noisy apartment over a pizza parlor in Queens. The parties she attends are all in her small apartment. Her kitchen is tiny and not well equipped. Julie and her husband both work full time to pay for their modest lifestyle. To get to work, Julie rides the crowded #7 train, the Flushing Local.
2) Julie Powell is unavoidably engaged with real people who have real problems; Julia Child is insulated from real-life problems. Julie Powell’s windowless cubicle is located in a building that overlooks the gaping whole in the ground where the World Trade Center used to be. Her job is to answer telephone calls from people who were affected by the attacks and help them find their way to the person or office best able to help them. Every day Julie takes calls, many of them very angry, from people who have lost possessions or housing or their health or their husband, daughter, brother, wife or son or parent in the Al Qaeda attack. Julie’s job is to direct them to the next room of the bureaucratic maze. As an unavoidable side effect of her job she becomes a sponge to absorb the monumental grief, anger, worry and despair that the terror attacks inflicted on her clients. This in New York City, two years after 9/11.
Julia Child, on the other hand, until she decides to take a cooking class–living in Paris one year after the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, two years after more than five thousand American soldiers died in the Normandy Invasion, in a city where the walls are freshly pockmarked with bullet holes from Nazi firing squads–can find nothing better to do with her time than dabble in hatmaking and a ladies’ bridge club.
What was Julia Child doing when she was 29 years old? She was 29 in 1941, the year of Pearl Harbor. Did she serve in the military? The movie doesn’t tell us, but somehow I doubt it. Julie & Julia does inform us that Child’s father was a wealthy right-wing Orange-County California Republican who later espoused McCartyite sympathies (which Julia and her husband did not share, I hasten to make clear).
My point is that Child and Powell were very different people in very different circumstances, so of course their life goals and approaches to cooking and writing were different. But I certainly don’t find Julia Child’s story intrinsically more interesting than Julie Powell’s. Quite the contrary, actually. Granted, Mrs. Child was a vivacious, larger-than-life character of many charms, which is why, indeed, Ms. Powell was so drawn to her. But her story itself, on the surface, is no grabs-you-by-the-collar tale: Woman writes cookbook. Yawn.
Julie Powell as George Plimpton
So, more or less on a whim, Julie Powell set out to cook her way through Child’s cookbook in a year, and to blog about it every day. Why a year? Why blog abut it? Well, you can read her blog to find out; I’m sure she addresses that question much better than I can. In the movie, her reasons are given as two: (a) because she hoped it would be challenging enough to draw her out of the depressive funk into which she feared she was sliding, and (b) so that she would prove to herself (and her mother) that she was capable of starting a project and finishing it. At no point was her goal to become a wildly successful writer with a big fat book and movie contract. That’s what happened, but it wasn’t her goal.
When I first heard of the Julie/Julia project and started reading her blog, it struck me as an interesting undertaking, not unlike the kind of thing that the late George Plimpton liked to do (and got famous and (more) wealthy doing). He was a professional dilittante; in fact, he made dilittantism a high art. Among many other exploits, Plimpton trained with and competed against professional: baseball players, hockey players, football players and tennis players. He started a literary magazine; attempted professional golf and stand-up comedy.
Not only did Plimpton do these things, of course; he also wrote engagingly about his experiences. I myself like the way Julie Powell writes. Your mileage may vary, of course, but check out the last entry in the Julie/Julia blog– her eulogy on Mrs. Child’s passing.
I never met Julia Child. I have no particular reason to think she’d even have liked me if I had. I have no claim over the woman at all, unless it’s the claim those who have nearly drowned have over the person who pulled them out of the ocean. And yet I do feel this loss personally, as a great six-foot-two hole in my world.
Julia Child began learning to cook when she was thirty-seven years old. She started because she wanted to feed her husband Paul. She started because though she’d fallen in love with great food late, when she did she’d fallen hard. She started because she was in Paris. She started because she didn’t know what else to do.
Who knows how it happens, how you come upon your essential gift? For this was hers. Not the cooking itself so much–lots of people cook better than Julia. Not even the recipes–others can write recipes. What was Julia’s true gift, then? She certainly had enormous energy, and that was a sort of gift, if a genetic one– perhaps the one thing about her you can pin down on the luck of the draw. She was a great teacher, certainly; funny, and generous, and enthusiastic, with so much overbrimming confidence that she had nothing to do with the surplus but start doling it out to others. But she also had a great gift for learning. Perhaps that was the talent she discovered in herself at the age of 37, at the Cordon Bleu School in Paris–the thirst to keep finding out, the openness to experience that makes life worth living.
She was no bending reed, of course. She had no use for silly, fear-driven food fads; she could be set in her ways, even mulish, and when she wanted to she could be withering. That’s fine. That’s good even. We don’t need saints. Who changes their life under the influence of a saint? Okay don’t answer that. But the point is, Julia was so impressive, so instructive, so exhilarating, because she was a woman, not a goddess. Julia didn’t create armies of drones, mindlessly equating her name with taste and muttering Its a Good Thing under their minty breath. Instead she created feisty, buttery, adventurous cooks, always diving in to the next possible disaster, because goddammit, if Julia did it, so could we.
Julie wrote blog entries like this virtually every day for a year. After commuting to and from her mind-numbing, heart-rending job on a crowded subway. After shopping, cooking, (doing the dishes, presumably), and so forth.
Writing takes time–I’ve already spent two hours composing this blog entry! –and it takes heart. I admire Powell’s dedication, and her words.
It’s easy to dismiss Powell’s 365 day cookathon as a stunt (even it was a stunt performed, at the outset, for an audience of one or two). Why not go through the book in three years, one might ask? Why the hurry? A three-year pace would certainly have been the occasion of much less stress on Powell herself and particularly on her husband. Setting the deadline of a year seems pretty arbitrary. And because the undertaking was so difficult and all-consuming, one can (and several movie reviewers do) accuse Julie Powell of self-absorption to a pathological degree. Why was it so damned important to work through the whole book in one year?
Well, of course the choice of a year was arbitrary. Just as four minutes was an arbitrary goal for Roger Bannister, just as 100 yards is an arbitrary length for a football field. But people like to watch sports. They like to see what athletes can do within the constraints. It’s interesting. Similarly for art forms with established, but ultimately arbitrary conventions. Speaking as a reader, when I heard of the challenge Julie Powell had set for herself, I became immediately intrigued, as did my wife.
If Julie Powell was self-centered, does the same hold true for every artist or athlete or scientist who throws himself or herself into their art or sport or research? By the way, don’t forget that Powell didn’t cook only for herself; her meals were shared by her husband and often by her friends.
But here’s the main thing: Julie Powell, in the course of a year, mastered the art of French cooking–at least as so defined by Julia Child. And along the way she built a loving monument to Julia Child, and introduced a vast new audience to Child’s life’s work. If that wasn’t worth doing, then why was Mastering the Art of French Cooking worth writing?
So that’s my snotty commentary on those snotty reviewers. Let them eat cake; that’s what I say. Perhaps a Reine de Saba with a chocolate-butter icing?
Coming upon your essential gift
Maybe I’m just sensitive to criticism of Julie Powell for being self-centered. I certainly dragged my family through much worse times than Julie did when I was writing my first novel. And even since then, in writing my other books and articles, hoping for that big breakthrough that will pay off financially, even long after all the Universe has hinted that I really should perhaps consider finding another line of work, that perhaps writing novels isn’t my essential gift.
Well, anyway, that’s today’s commentary on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Time to go wash the dishes. Bon appetit!