- Some movies are candy; others are a snack, a lean lunch, or a hearty meal. And some are just comfort food. Like popcorn. I grew up in a family that came home from church on Sunday nights and spent the evening watching movies and eating popcorn. I know enough people of my denomination that have this practice that I’ve come to think of it as an obligatory Wesleyan tradition, right up there with having pot roast for Sunday dinner.
- And I think it’s appropriate. Sunday is a day of rest. A day to relax and be still. A day to remember comforts and celebrate the blessings we have. So sitting on my couch with a big bowl of air-popped popcorn, laced unsparingly with olive oil and sea salt, and watching a movie is a highlight of my week. The movie I choose is usually one I feel in no way obligated to watch in order to prepare for class, keep abreast of film trends, or expand my knowledge of film. I watch something that gives me pleasure. Last week it was Roberta, one of the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers flicks. Roberta like Flying Down to Rio uses Ginger and Fred in supporting roles, but their chemistry is great, their characters fit them nicely, and the story is lovely. Randolph Scott is very Randolph Scott-ish, Ginger and Fred knock out an inspired performance of “I Won’t Dance,” and Irene Dunne sings “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Like popcorn, that movie is comfort food. I could not exist on a diet of only this, but I treat myself to it on a regular basis and feel no guilt because it has nutritional value.
- Ginger and Fred movies are brushed aside as escapist fare, and mislabeled as musicals. They were musicals before the American musical had reached the classic stage (the stage version of Oklahoma! came the decade after most of their pictures). They’re really a complicated version of a screwball comedy with songs, some of which are framed as “on stage” and some of which are integrated. The films are worthwhile for the comedy scripts by themselves. Throw in Fred and Ginger tapping away like mad and introducing to the world an astounding number of songs that would become popular standards, and the films become undeniable classics.
- This Sunday’s comfort food flavor was decidedly different. While at a conference last fall in San Diego, I took myself to a movie. Not wanting to see the vampire movie that had long lines camped out and waiting (I could see that anywhere), I looked down the options at the theater for something I could not easily see while at home in rural Michigan. Aha! A foreign film. Perfect. It was called My Only Ü. I went back to my hotel and watched a trailer on Youtube. It looked like fun. Later that night as I purchased my ticket, the attendant reminded me that the film was Filipino, with no subtitles. Not being conversant in Filipino, I did hesitate, but had already made up my mind and purchased the ticket. Picture the scene: Midwesterner of obvious European heritage sits in a theater that slowly is populated by people who appear more likely to understand a Pacific Asian language. Doubtless they were all thinking, “either that chic is a language grad student, or she’s in the wrong theater.” The film begins, and around me people laugh and smile while I do my best to make sense of the plot.
- There was a lot that was completely lost on me. I got the basic premise of Winona’s fear of dying by a certain age because other members of her family had met a premature demise. I understood that her love interest was Bong, who was having trouble confessing his love, and looking out for her health. But many jokes in the dialog made people around me chuckle, while I smiled in ignorance. For all that, however, there was a great deal that didn’t need translation. The language of the film was actually Tagalog, or more correctly Taglish (like Spanglish), as it was a heavy mixture of English words and phrases in a basic bed of Tagalog. Because of this mix, much of the movie did make sense. And even without it, in a film it’s the faces you watch, and they told the story that counted.
- My Only Ü is a fun movie. It’s not going to win any international festival awards. It was made for mass consumption, but it is a good story, well told. The characters are charming and sweet. The role of the doctor/ghost as narrator, expressive effects Winona’s seeing Bong as a more handsome man when she realizes she’s in love with him, and the dialog across the apartment complex via notes drawn in notebooks help confirm the fictionality of the narrative, which has heavy doses of black comedy and fantasy interspersed. One of my favorite moments comes when Bong apologizes to the entire compound of apartments by painting the letters S-O-R-R on objects, standing them outside his door, then falling on his knees and spreading out his arms to be the Y.
- The humor is sincere and heartfelt. Before Bong is able to truly confess his feelings, he and Winona are at an outdoor prayer service, and as they and the crowd chant “I love you, Lord” Bong turns to Winona and says, “I love you.” Then immediately faces forward, closes his eyes, and finishes the sentence, “Lord,” just as Winona turns to him. Clever and fun. My Only Ü knows it audience, but like a lot of good works of art, it transcends it. Even I, in a theater experience completely out of my element, was caught up in the story, laughing, smiling, and empathizing along with the rest of the audience. And what struck me even more as I watched it again (with subtitles this time) was how unpretentious the film is. No flashy LA homes or gritty New York streets, just a prosaic apartment complex with one burner propane stoves, roofs of metal sheeting, and people who looked like those one would meet on the street. Realistic, but made with formalistic techniques. Classic storytelling.
- The critics who first contended that movies were art stressed the things that film can do that nothing else could. Many filmmakers and critics have interpreted this in different ways, but the movies I keep returning to are the ones that no grand aspirations. They are entertainment, yes, but in the craftsmanship of the romance or adventure or comedy there are the things that stories can do: what makes the story art; that magical something that happens to us when we watch a movie. They are populated by people I feel I know, and yet I am aware they are characters played by actors. Aristotle called it mimesis, Coleridge, the willing suspension of disbelief. And in that suspension, in that mimetic moment I do know them. The story may not be real in some ways, but it is real in others. It lives the way memories or dreams do. And what better medium is there to express dreams or memories? That is what cinema can do, that nothing else can. Comfort to mind and spirit, as good food to the body.