Monday, August 31, 2009

Julie vs. Julia: The generation gap

“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook”
Julia Childs

“Butter makes life worth living,” sounds like something Julia Child would have and should have said but that is my sentiment and how I have always felt about butter even though I cannot claim to be a Julia Child fan. That is, not until I met my wife. It was my wife who helped me discover the joys of Julia’s recipes and the fact that someone else in this world felt the same way I did about butter and for much longer than I have been alive. Needless to say that my wife is a huge Julia fan and I became one after sampling some of her wondrous fare in my wife’s most talented and capable hands (I secretly believe my wife is a better cook). Thought, I do have to admit that Julia had me at butter. So, as you would expect, we set out this past weekend to watch Nora Ephron’s new movie. We had been told that Julie & Julia is both a glowing tribute and a shallow disservice to Julia Child, depending on who we spoke with, so we decided to find out for ourselves.

Overall, I really enjoyed Julie & Julia. I think the word that best describes the film is delightful. Light, fun, funny and poignant at times and Meryl Streep’s portrayal, even if seemingly a little exaggerated and hyperbolic, was spot on and very memorable. No doubt Ms. Streep will be garnering her thirteenth Oscar nod in short time. I left the theater feeling rather happy with life and also rather hungry. However, there was one particular facet of the film that caught my attention and really got me thinking. It had to do with the stark contrast between the two generations that were portrayed by the two characters. I am not sure if this was intentional or an unintended consequence of simply presenting the two stories, in an honest way, but nonetheless it turned out to be a fascinating and eye opening comparison on all the things society seems to have lost in just about one generation. To begin with I found Julie Powell, and her character portrayed by Amy Adams (of Junebug and Doubt fame), not only shallow but whiny, annoying and I don’t know how else to say put this, but down-market. On the other hand, I felt Meryl Streep’s, Julia, was stoic, elegant and a woman of depth and great substance. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Julie who, in my mind, personified a telling commentary on our generation, complained about absolutely every aspect of her life. She just never seemed to be able to see the bright or light side of her life, in any aspect. From the beginning, with her move from Brooklyn to a new apartment in Queens, she complains about how the kitchen is too small. Then there is her crappy job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, where she describes herself as a “government drone, and a soulless bureaucratic goon.” Her job entails talking with the surviving relatives of 9/11 and helping them navigate through the city’s bureaucratic maze, and answering questions about proposed re-development plans. Albeit she sits in a small crammed cubicle and probably does not get paid anything close to Wall Street wages but surely the nobility of what she does every day, the lives she touches in a meaningful way, make up for all or some of that? But I guess that is not nearly enough for Julie, as she finds nothing but fault and negativity with her profession. Then as if we have not yet been shocked enough by her seeming shallowness we are introduced to her friends. They are even more vapid and vacuous than Julie, which one would not have thought possible. But there is one other explanation for this, which my wife pointed out to me. Julie’s friends are portrayed as even more wrapped up in their own self-indulgence and self-pity so that we are able to relate to Julie by thinking her a little less inane by comparison. Thank god for small consolations.

With regards to her great challenge, the premise of her blog - taking on the whopping 536 recipes in 365 days while still keeping her day job, one cannot help but feel (and hope) that perhaps this might be a noble cause after all. She has admitted to the audience that she has never finished anything she started before and plans to make this her first completed endeavour. And she talks about how the whole process of getting to know Julia Child, in the bargain, is making her a better person, thereby benefiting not only her perspective on life, but her relationships with people that matter. This is all splendid and one begins to feel some sense of redemption for our generation that is until you realise that her primary and only motivation seems to be notoriety and cash. When readers comments start to pour in on her blog posts, and she is beginning to get noticed we see the real Julie step from behind the shadows of the words and thoughts on her blog that almost have us fooled. The other telling note is that every time she has a meltdown (which are quite frequent) and is ready to give up, her husband eggs her on, not by words of comfort or a gentle push to finish what she has started but by telling her either to cheat (as nobody will ever be the wiser) or how fame and celebrity are just around the corner.

We then get to contrast all the above to Julia Child, whose motivations seem to be completely the opposite. She discovers cooking, or more like it discovers her, while she looks for things to do to fill her time while her husband is posted in France. She finds that it is a great way to express her larger than life personality in a completely male dominated society and also, a way to fit in, in distant, foreign lands. She has to work five times as hard as any man in her generation would for everything she achieves. Julia even has to fight to take her Cordon Bleu exam, in a male dominated chef’s world, where women are frowned upon. Never at any point during her many trials and tribulations do we feel like her efforts and motivations are a way for her to be famous or make a fortune. You also never see her whine about anything. When we find out that her greatest sadness is that she will always remain childless, it’s a heartwrenching, poignant moment in the movie. And when her cookbook and life’s work is rejected, her answer is to hold her head up high, and re-write the whole thing to make it better. Even with seemingly insurmountable odds, we never see Julia cower. Nor do we witness her lay on the floor, kicking, screaming and crying, while shouting at her husband, the way Julie does every time the stuffing falls out of a chicken or one of her sauces burn. Julia’s world continues stoically just as often as Julie’s falls apart for the slightest of reasons or seemingly none at all.

It made me think how differently we approach life today, even when it comes to the simplest things. We rarely see the joie de vivre that is so present in Julia’s world, despite arguably greater odds, in Julie’s world. I don’t think that life got much harder. Certainly, the challenges we face are different, but I am talking about the manner in which we choose to face and overcome those challenges. If Julie is telling of our generation’s attitude to life, then it feels like we make life much harder on ourselves, and that our success and happiness have become equated squarely with fame and fortune. So I urge you to go and watch this movie, to be delighted and feel famished but also to consider these thoughts. If you agree with me, then you will also feel that we have lost much over the last generation and that there is a lot left to be desired.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's a lot easier to have the joie de vivre when your husband is supporting you and you have no kids and thus have all day to yourself and no one to boss you around than when you have to support yourself in a full-time seemingly-pointless job where you get no respect and have no authority. I think you're forgetting a major difference and that is that Julie had a full-time job and Julia didn't. Essentially, cooking was Julia's full-time job, except that she didn't have to depend on it to pay the rent. Julia could devote all her time, energy, and spirit into cooking, whereas Julie, like the rest of us, could only squeeze her passion into a small corner of her life where it would fit, the rest of it taken up with the drudgery of work.

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