Saturday, January 12, 2019

Three Beautiful Things 01/11/19: Back to Tofu Stroganoff, Michelle Williams Plays Marilyn Monroe, *Run Lola Run*

1. After completing my morning routines, including Friday morning breakfast at Sam's with Ed, Jerry, Buff, and Scott B., I cubed a block of tofu, chopped half an onion and a couple stalks of celery, and opened a package of sliced mushrooms. I sauteed the onion and celery, added the mushrooms and cooked them down, and then put the toful in the skillet. I flavored this mixture with sherry vinegar and pepper and folded in both whole fat plain yogurt and sour cream. I made a pot of rice and now I have one of my favorite meatless dishes, tofu stroganoff, ready to eat as a meal or to snack on.

2. Michelle Williams first came to my attention as the young librarian in the movie, The Station Agent and later as Ennis' (Heath Ledger) wife in the movie Brokeback Mountain. About five years ago, I watched her play the lead in Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz. I have never watched her in Blue Valentine or Manchester by the Sea, but will. At family dinner, I often hear that I should also see her in The Greatest Showman.

I'm searching for a way to articulate what make Michelle Williams' work memorable to me. It's in her face and her eyes. While her characters are always fully present at any moment in the story, simultaneously they are carrying the weight of some kind of inward pain. They reside in more than one world at once, the present world along with a world that exists in memory and feeling, a source of subtle and always present fragility.

Late this afternoon, I watched Michelle Williams play the role of Marilyn Monroe in the movie, My Week with Marilyn. It's a movie about the making of the movie, The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Marilyn Monroe and the movie's director, Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). During the movie's production, in London, Marilyn Monroe looked to the movie's third assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) for solace, support, and companionship when her husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), returned to the USA and while she struggled to act under Olivier's direction.

The role of Marilyn Monroe charged Michelle Williams with the task of playing two characters at once. First, she played the public persona of Marilyn Monroe, glamorous, talented, witty, and alluring, an ingenious comedic actor with remarkable instincts.  She also played the private Marilyn Monroe, portrayed in this movie as neurotic, deeply insecure, fragile, anxious, and hungry for love and acceptance. The movie hints at sources of Marilyn Monroe's suffering (absent parents, exploitation by men). Michelle Williams beautifully plays the ways this movie's Marilyn Monroe charms, enrages, frustrates, and delights those around her, betraying moments of paranoia, begging for approval and reassurance, living in constant fear of abandonment and rejection, and depending on pills to sleep, to relax, and to be alert. 

[By the way, twice in this movie, Branagh's Lawrence Olivier breaks spontaneously into reciting Shakespeare, first Othello ("Farewell content") and then Prospero ("We are such stuff as dreams are made on"). Branagh's brief recitations made me shiver with pleasure.]

3. I sat in front of the television, letting My Week with Marilyn sink in. Recently, I noticed on my Amazon Fire Stick home page that a new app had popped up called IMDb Freedive. I opened it and learned that it offers countless free movies with ads. Not expecting much, I started scrolling across the offerings and I nearly leaped out of my skin with joy. One of the offerings was Run Lola Run.

A rush of many of my most treasured memories volleyed forth into my mind's eye. I started teaching the Survey of World Literature course back in the fall of 2002. It might have been that spring, or a year or two later, when I decided, in spring term, which covers 19th-21st century literature from around the world, that in order to acquaint students with stories from around the world, those students who wanted an "A" in the course would bring a movie from anywhere in the world outside of the USA and England to class, describe the movie's content, and show a short clip of the movie. I wish I had a list of all the movies students brought in (I might have a record somewhere of movies I recommended), but some come to mind: Mostly Martha, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Cinema Paradiso, but the one that I had never seen and that blew me away was Run Lola Run.

It's a frenetic movie that repeats a single short story three times. Each version includes slight variations in the action and the tiny variants lead to consequences that change the outcome of each version of the story.

Somewhere along line, I decided to make the entire movie, Run Lola Run, the first work of literature my students experienced in the spring quarter Survey of World Lit class. I thought its rapid pace, its exploration of chaos theory's butterfly effect, and its delving into ideas about free will, chance, conscious intent, and determinism set us up to explore these and other questions of importance in the late 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Tonight, the movie enthralled me again. It also opened the way for me to delight in all those years between 2002 and 2012 when the Survey of World Lit course played a prominent role in my day to day intellectual and teaching life. I thought about students I'd worked with in those courses who loved the experience of seeing the world through the perspective of storytellers, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers of other countries and came to realize both different ways of seeing the world and that we are bonded together by a common humanity, with shared questions and explorations regarding what it means to be human.

I was very fortunate to be teaching at LCC during that time. As faculty, we offered a compelling variety of literature courses, decided among ourselves who would teach them, and happily supported one another when any one of us wanted to venture out into previously uncharted territory -- my taking on the old Survey of World Literature sequence is an example of just that. It was new territory for me and profoundly invigorated the last ten years of my full-time teaching career.

It was electric to feel that invigoration again tonight while watching Run Lola Run. 

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