Monday, August 17, 2009

Julie & Julia: A Movie About Coping With 9/11?

Yesterday someone I know and I went to see Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia at our neigbhorhood Avalon theatre.

I have to admit bias. I interviewed Julia Child briefly at a PBS convention, and wrote about her shows for my book PBS: Behind the Screen. She was indeed very tall, very jolly, and peered down at me, hunched over, like a crane. So it seems that Meryl Streep certainly got her right.

I didn't mind the alternating story as much as some people. It seemed to illustrate an important and recurring theme: the failure of the Lower Manhattan Development Commission to rebuild the World Trade Center after 9/11. The picture repeatedly returns to the wasteland where the Twin Towers once stood, as well as repeatedly shows the "cube farm" where calls from the public were answered by people who could do nothing to help. So, I thought to myself, this explains the intensification of the "foodie" pheonomenon that swept New York. It was a displacement of rage, a form of dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by fulfilling some primal drives--to eat good food, for example. Okay, it seemed the message of the film came through, if one can't rebuild the World Trade Center, at least one can cook Boeuf Bourguignon...

It gave the film a very sad, almost tragic, least on this viewer. How pathetic that the young people of New York, the "best and the brightest" (Julie Powell had been, in the film at least, editor of the Amherst literary magazine), are unable to deal directly with the attack on their city. Instead, the drive to accomplish something meaningful--such as the defeat of Al Qaeda and its allies--had been sublimated in the face of an unresponsive and incompetent bureaucracy. This turning away from the world of work resembled, in a sense, the "inner emigration" described by Anti-Nazi Germans during World War II, or the victims of Stalinist repressions. Since nothing can be done about politics or society, just bake a tasty chocolate cake for your family and friends.

In addition to overwhelming sadness in the film, there is evidence of this phenomenon in posts on Julie Powell's blog:
Maps - I'm sorry you feel that my book expresses no compassion for the families of 9/11 victims,because that was not my intent at all. I merely wanted to show that being faced with that suffering - and with the various complaints of everyday New Yorkers who seemed to feel that their irritations with, say, the memorial design or some such, equating the agonies and traumas of those who had actually suffered in that horrible event - took a toll on me personally, as a secretary with no power to truly help, and overwhelmed by bureaucratic nonsense. I could have written a varnished pretty version of my experience, all sweetness and light, but to me that is what would have been dishonest and disrespectful to those who have truly suffered so much.

Also - I'm not a government drone anymore, and the Ritz-Carlton is on Sony's tab.
She certainly doesn't say that it filled her with pride to be part of a vital and patriotic effort to rebuild New York. And her callers in the film say that they "hate" what the government is doing.

(So do I, as you can see from my post of July 8, 2008: "Rebuilding what your enemies destroy is War Propaganda 101--it's what the British did after the Nazis flattened the Houses of Parliament...and the Pentagon did after 9/11. The dithering and unseemly fighting over the money surrounding the World Trade Center project sends a very bad signal of weakness and disarray to America's adversaries. The empty lot is a victory for Terrorists. Putting something else there would be a victory for Al Qaeda ('Look Mom, we blew it up.'). It signals fear...")

The subtext of Julie and Julia is a terrible commentary on New York's--and America's--response to the greatest attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor. It merits expansion into another film of its own....