They came out about a week ago, but if you haven’t already watched them — you should. In an absolute stroke of brilliance, The New York Times Magazine decided to get fourteen A-list actors in front of a camera for short, silent single-take scenes. It’s called “Fourteen Actors Acting“. (Click the link to follow to it.)
For all of you that went through film school — especially working with a Bolex and 16mm B&W Reversal — a lot of these will feel familiar in the best way. They’re just like those exercises and assignments you had to suffer through while trying to get a grasp on the medium, the ones you overexposed or had your actor-friend drop out at the last minute only to be replaced with your roommate’s drunk friend — only these are perfect little exercises, perfect little displays, and fourteen actors — including Matt Damon, James Franco, Chloe Moretz, Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem and Tilda Swinton — who all seem to understand how less translates to more.
They can remind you why you like this crazy stuff in the first place.
The thirteenth century monk and Christian mystic Thomas à Kempis closed his magnum opus Imitatio Christi with a savory two-cent piece of advice,
“Remember that lost time does not return.”
And he meant it, too. Kempis worked on his book off and on for nearly a quarter century. He wrote at the tail end of the Middle Ages, just as large reformations were beginning to enter into European dialogue, but his Imitation of Christ, when it published, became the foremost guide to the ideal expression of legitimate sacristy which had been assembled over the previous six hundred years.
Kempis’ book made more of an impact than it would have at any time before thanks to the knowhow of a contemporary of his, Johannes Gutenberg and his spiffy new contraption, the printing press. So the Imitation of Christ was published in a small first printing, and the clergy went about as crazy as a bunch of Trekkies spotting Shatner at a Starbucks. Kempis wrote the quintessential Christian survival guide — this, very literally, became the standard to which you compared yourself to an ideal holy life. Across Europe, the clergy began telling people to act according to the suggestions Kempis structured in his book, not simply in the ways put down in the Bible. It was Kempis’ word — not just those of the Saints — that dictated the road to heaven. It was imitation that would lead you to salvation.
But imitation can be hard to validate. Like the phrase goes, it’s the greatest form of flattery, but flattery is deceptive. Imitation has larceny under its nails; there’s always the desire for recognition pushing people in unusually selfish directions. People may imitate, but do they do it out of ingenuity or cowardice? Most of popular culture results from imitators.
But I pose the question: when does imitation itself become ingenuity?
Cinema answers this question in a number of peculiar ways. Film (and video) is an unusually replicable medium. Formally, it is easy to reproduce — just look at the battle over pirating. But it goes beyond just ripping DVDs. At day’s end, it’s basically the duty of the filmmaker to study the exact techniques of previous directors, writers and cinematographers. Film School is set up to facilitate this: environments are created wherein people are copying the set-ups of shots and exacting the style of another artist. It goes beyond film, as well: art schools have encouraged painters and drawers to sketch the works of greater artists past. Why? Is there something individually unique in this replication?
i. – Julie & Julia
It also covers the repercussions of her work, told in two interweaving narratives: Julia’s life in France and, forty years later, a neurotic writer-to-be living in New York named Julie who decides to spend a year cooking her way through Mastering the Art, write a blog about it, and inexplicably spends every single evening drinking several martinis without any dire effects. Meryl Streep, as always, is impeccable as Julia Child and Amy Adams is great as Julie. Although they both are extremely empathetic protagonists, it’s Julia who always manages to be the one in power. Julia draws meaning from life out of excellence; Julie draws meaning out of life from the replication of Julia’s excellence.
Which leads us to what’s most provocative about the film. Cooking, arguably, is an art in its own right, and not just by using the word in a colloquial throw-around. There is a strict discipline to it. And unlike all other mediums, there is such a thing as a cookbook. Yes, there are guidebooks and textbooks for other art forms. There are page-by-page, step-by-step instructions from everything from abstract painting and ballet to watercolors and bas-printing. There are manuals for film and there’s even a “cookbook” for techniques on making avant-garde, handcrafted graphic films. However, the difference between these guidebooks
and gastronomic cookbooks — Child’s in particular — is that the former insist on the individual taking the lessons and making something new and unique; the latter asks that the cook follow the directions in order to produce a standard form of a dish.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking means that there must be great discipline involved in order to aspire to the gastronomic results. French cooking has a preset, standard number of dishes and to learn them or even cook them is to aspire to the objective art. The gastronomic cookbooks means that following its directions will give you an exact replica of the objective delight that has been previously considered. More than this, in following the directions, your creation is just as much a work of art as the original was in the first place.
This very notion of objectivity is called into question in the last act of the film, though. Julie is now, thanks to her blog, getting attention and even a write up in the New York Times. However, a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, over the phone, informs Julie that Julia Child — when told about the blog — disapproves of what Julie’s doing. She believes that it is not “respectful” enough.
Her disapproval signals the grey area in the imitation/innovation debate. Julia Child disapproved of the blog because of what she thought was, “a lack of respect for the food”. This is the grey area of the objectivity of the “art” of following the cookbook. Yes, there is an art to it, but one must follow unwritten protocol in the imitation to get there.
 Your author did, in fact, cook the Boeuf Bourguinon, which was, in fact, mind-fuckingly good. Your author wishes to add that he is not even a decent cook and, as such, followed the directions set down by Julia Child to their last exacting measure. The result was, surprisingly, someone with no background in slow cooking or French cuisine managed to crank out an exquisite dinner for himself and his girlfriend that seemed almost too good to be true.
Today’s food movement codifies cooking to a centrally capitalist system: you need to cook in 30 minutes or less because of work*; you need the Slap Chop because slicing a carrot is too tiring and innovation is (is!) required. What Child’s cookbook, as well as all cookbooks written prior to, from your author’s limited research of his mother and grandmother’s cookbooks, 1970 all contain the outdated notion that cooking is a transcendent and ancient practice. This concept of cooking as a gathering process stopped as a result of both sociological and technological changes.
Many Americans’ notion of the nuclear family unit changed in the 1970s and after as divorce rates climbed in the US. The previous notion of the “family coming together for dinner” began becoming more and more awkward or dysfunctional. Also, in the 1990s, for many families dinner stopped occurring altogether as athletic practices became more demanding and computer technology became more inviting and intoxicating. On top of this, the introduction of the microwave as well as the proliferation of frozen foods ended the search for fresh ingredients and new recipes. Cooking was portrayed as a chore. Although, indeed, since mass marketing was introduced in the late 1940s (on the full-blown scale) and the archetype of the “beleaguered housewife” (viz. “Mother’s Little Helper” — Jagger/Richards) became the central standard to which everyday lives were compared, the notion of cooking as a part of housework has been compounded with vacuum cleaners and Clorox into our minds. But once large corporations began noticing that quick-cooking was marketable, then slow cuisine began fading away.
* This is not to downplay the (already) underrated genius of Rachel Ray. Your author does not blame her or wish to downplay any of her accomplishments. On the contrary, it is because of the outstanding factors of society that the very idea of cooking in a short amount of time has been forced to exist. Ray has done quite a bit in exemplifying an accessible objectivity within cuisine.