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Movie Mom
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I am honored to share coverage of popular culture with the thoughtful posters over at Idol Chatter. Two posts I have especially liked this week are Ellen Leventry’s commentary on the new homeless American Girl doll and the Mont Blanc $25,000 pen commemorating Mohandas Gandhi, a concept so stunning that at first I assumed it was a parody. She says:

Sure, American Girl has been working with HomeAid America, a leading national nonprofit provider of housing for the homeless, since 2006, and they have successfully addressed important social issues with other dolls, including Addy Walker, an escaped slave who is trying to reunite her family, and the Depression-era, penny-pinching Kit Ketteridge. But, American Girl is taking a problem that is less safely historical and merchandising it in the same way. In this recession, with more and more individuals and families becoming homeless, surely the Mattel-owned company could give a generous percentage of the sales of the even-in-economically-good-times-exorbitantly priced doll to charity?

That would certainly reinforce the learning experience of this doll. And I agree, too, that while Mont Blanc is giving some of the profits from this pen to charity, including one approved by Gandhi’s great-grandson, there is something fundamentally inconsistent in the idea of honoring a man whose possessions could be contained in a shoebox with a pen that costs as much as a car.
I also loved Esther Kustanowitz’s post on “The Family Goy,” about an episode of “The Family Guy” that explores Lois’ Jewish identity. There’s a link to the episode, too, so take a look.

NM: You conveyed so much in your body language when you get hugged by the Sy character. How did you create that physicality?
MS: You know what? It just happens. It just naturally happened that way. We did it once and everyone laughed and it was like the blessing for the whole movie. You do as much preparation as you can and then when you get yourself into the space and you’re asked to just do it you leave yourself open to what happens.
NM: In a conventional movie, we would have had some sort of explanation, probably very simplistic, about what led to the strained relationship between your character Larry and his wife Judith. But in the Coen brothers movies, we seldom get that kind of clarity. Did you and the actress who played your wife come to some kind of understanding about the history of your characters’ relationship?
MS: Absolutely. Sari Lennick and I got together and talked about what those things were for us. Since they didn’t explore it in front of the camera we felt like we needed to bring something to ground us in what we were going to do so we discussed that thoroughly.
NM: You said that the director of photography, Roger Deakins, is almost like a third director because they wait until he thinks the light is perfect before shooting. How do you, as someone trained in theater, where there is prolonged concentration, stay ready so that you can jump into the scene the moment the sunlight is what Deakins has been waiting for?
MS: It’s just one of those things that comes with doing film work. The light is all important in terms of capturing a particular moment and part of the challenge of the job for me is to be ready. I did my work before hand and hoped that when I got in front of the camera the work would pay off.
NM: One of the movie’s greatest strengths is the specificity of the production design which does a lot to tell us who these characters are. How was your performance helped by the make-up, hair, and clothing that seem so perfect for a middle-class suburb in 1967?
MS: Fríða Aradóttir helped me with the hair and Jean Black helped me with the make-up. We did a “haggard chart” to keep track of the various stages of misery that my character was experiencing. Jean and Fríða have been working with the Coens forever. Fríða is very tall and Icelandic and Jean is short and from Texas, so they are really quite a pair, kind of opposites but they work so beautifully together. So I just threw myself at their mercy and we just played. Jean and I sat down with the script together and marked out what Larry might be like physically and how haggard he might be on an given day.
Costume designer Mary Zophres gave me the shell for my character by finding those clothes.
NM: I was very impressed with your physical and verbal fluency with the very complex physics material your character has to lecture on. How did you manage that?
MS: Just a lot of practice! I sat in my hotel room in Minneapolis and just wrote it out over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about it so much any more, until it was just part of my natural instinct.
NM: Was there one scene that was especially challenging for you?
MS: There were a couple of moments that I just couldn’t stop laughing. I just find the story so funny. My first scene with Adam Arkin, in his law office, we were both just laughing our heads off. I would start and then he would start and it took us over half an hour just to calm down. And then with Richard Kind, the scene where he is on the sofa and I am on a cot in the living room, and he says “Boy, you should have worn a hat,” that just made me giggle. And then there was the constant challenge to try to monitor the emotional emotional journey that Larry was on and I had to trust that Joel would tell me if I went too far. He did on one occasion when I gave him the option of getting a little teary, but he said that is probably what is going on with him, but put a lid on it.
NM: What do you think the response will be to this movie, especially from non-Jews, who will find much of it unfamiliar?
MS: I hope that people will just come and have a good time. There may be a word here or there that they may not understand but so much of it is universal of someone who goes these troubles and tries to find an answer to his questions and has trouble trying to get them.
NM: What inspires you?
MS: I love a sense of humor, I love intelligence, I love specificity, I love surprises. I’m inspired to get out of bed in the morning and fill my day with good things.

A lovely film that was neglected on its release last year will now be available in a slightly edited version that is suitable for family viewing. It is called “Henry Poole is Here,” and it is the story of a man (Luke Wilson) who thinks he has lost everything. When Henry moves into a small house he just wants to be left alone, and he does his best to obliterate himself. But a stain on his stucco looks to at least one neighbor like it could be an apparition of Jesus. And then, when it seems that the people who come to see it get special blessings, Henry finds that being left alone is getting harder and harder. And then what happens does begin to feel like a miracle, even to Henry.
The film has a lot of heart and a lot of inspiration for both believers and seekers. It is well worth a place on the family’s movie night schedule.
Thanks to commenter Michele for letting me know about the re-release of this film.

Near the northernmost part of the eastern seaboard of the United States, tens of thousands of American military fly in and out on their way to tours of duty or on their way home. A tiny group of people, many elderly, are there to wish every one of them well and express the gratitude of our nation for their service and our good wishes for their safety. These are the Maine Troop Greeters. At all hours of the day and night, they are there to give a warm welcome and a friendly handshake to more than 900,000 service members (and more than 172 military dogs). An award-winning film called “The Way We Get By” tells the story of the troop greeters. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense (and former U.S. Senator from Maine) William Cohen says, it “is a moving and important film that encourages us to reflect upon the common bonds of mission and service that span generations.” It is one of the most inspiring movies of the year.

The movie is playing in limited release and will be available on DVD next month. It will air on PBS on Veteran’s Day.

I spoke to director Aron Gaudet about making the film over a four-year period.

NM: How did you come to this project?

AG: One of the three subjects is my mom. She is a Maine troop greeter.

NM: What is it like to make a movie about your mother?

AG: It was really interesting because it made me look at her from a completely different perspective. It gave me much more of an appreciation for her, for what she chose to do in her retirement years. At first, she wasn’t really doing much of anything. She didn’t have any hobbies. And then when she started doing this, it completely changed her life. It gave her such a sense of purpose and made me even more proud of her once I followed her around and saw what she was doing. Her and the rest of the troop greeters kind of amazed and inspired me.

NM: Did your mother work outside the home?

AG: Yes, she worked in a nursing home as a registered nurse’s aide.

NM: So at work and at home and now with the troop greeters, she has always been a caretaker.

AG: She really did spend her life taking care of people and now she is still doing the same thing.

It started out a short film about troop greeting and became a movie about life, about the universal things everyone goes through. This is a culture that defines people by your occupation and what you do, when you retire and you are no longer known for what you were doing, we tend to push people aside when we don’t see an immediate purpose in what they are doing. So these are people who all came to being troop greeters because they wanted at the end of their lives to do something that made a contribution.

We started seeing these parallels, too, all of these people going off to war are concerned about mortality and so are the older people who are greeting them. These big life issues took shape very quickly and were very interesting to us. Things they were dealing with whether it was financial heartache or losing a spouse, those are things anyone can relate to.

The Way We Get By – Trailer from The Way We Get By on Vimeo.

I am the youngest of eight, and all the others still live in Maine. But it made me realize that even with a huge support system, everyone checking in with her, she still spends a lot of time alone. Even with a big family, you still need to find something to put yourself into and give your life purpose.

NM: There were greeters during WWII who brought food for the military to the trains that were transporting them.

AG: Yes, we kind of got away from that tradition with Vietnam, they came back to nothing or were treated poorly, and one of the things that inspired the WWII veterans in Maine was wanting to do better for these troops. One of our three subjects says in the film, “We don’t necessarily support why they were sent there but we do support the troops.” They put their politics aside.

NM: How has this affected your mother’s life?

AG: Well the movie has made them into local celebrities. But in between flights, a bunch of them will go out to lunch together or do something else and so they have become friends. And it has affected my life, too. Gita the producer and I had started dating in October of 2004 and I took her home for Christmas to meet my mom for the first time. She got a call at 2 am to meet a flight and we went with her and brought a camera. We met Bill Knight, a WWII veteran, and in the movie he tells us he has prostate cancer. That night we went was the day he was diagnosed. It was a pretty dark day for him but he was still putting other people before him and that really grabbed us. People said that producers and directors don’t always get along too well together. But our relationship grew and when we finished, I said, “We didn’t kill each other,” so I proposed and we are getting married.