Weekend Movie Pick?? Firebrand

It’s hard for me to dislike a movie about the Tudors. But not impossible. Firebrand, the new movie about Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, directed by Karim Aïnouz (trailer), could have almost as accurately been called The Somnambulist. The fact that four separate women are credited with the screenwriting could be part of the problem: no one vision dominates.

Alicia Vikander walks through her role as Katherine, never making a convincing queen, almost never showing much emotion. She’s married to a mercurial and dangerous man. Powerful people, including the reactionary Bishop Gardiner (played by Simon Russell Beale) oppose her liberal religious beliefs and want to bring her down. Yet she seems strangely unmovable.

Just about the only time she gets her emotions up is when she’s pleading with her friend, Protestant reformer Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), to flee England. Anne, one of England’s earliest female poets, was tortured and burned at the stake for her religious preaching. She does have fire and wit, and what ignites her passion is her belief that common people should be able to read the Bible in English for themselves, rather than be dependent on priests to translate the Latin and tell them what scripture says and means. The contrast between her and the impassive Catherine couldn’t be greater.

So let’s talk about Jude Law, who plays Henry VIII. Corpulent and capricious, he held my gaze every time he was on screen. I could not find the familiar actor in the appearance or increasingly paranoid behavior of this character. If Vikander is not a convincing royal personage, he embodies his position absolutely. He is a king.

Some aspects of the movie are historically accurate, such as Catherine’s close relationships with Henry’s children: Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife); Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn, his second), and Edward (son of Jane Seymour). It acknowledges her authorship of prayer books—the first Englishwoman to have books published under her own name. A prayer she utters in support of Henry, ended up in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer where it remains today.

Alas, some aspects of the story are not historically accurate, including the dramatic yet unconvincing final scene, and a number of episodes created in the hope of increasing the film’s suspense. Given that so much is at stake for the people and causes of England at this time, it’s surprising that the movie, when Henry isn’t in it, is so turgid. Much is made cinematically about Henry’s ulcerating leg wound. Gruesome, but not suspenseful. I can’t recommend this, despite Law’s wonderful performance. Coming to streaming soon; that might be a good choice.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 54%; audiences: 69% (and that may be for the costumes).

Provence Poppies

Too early for the fabled lavender fields in Provence last month, we were definitely in time for another dramatic floral display—fields and fields of poppies. Poppies by the roadside, poppies along the edges of farms. Poppies, poppies, poppies. It seemed as if you could stop the car anywhere and gather an armload of red, yellow, blue, and white flowers. Just beautiful.

Our tour guide explained that the poppy profusion is a bit unpredictable. They don’t always grow in such numbers, and they don’t always grow in the same places. They appear where the field hasn’t been cultivated—so this is why the edge of the roadway is a prime location, dotted with brilliant red.

But why wouldn’t one of the lush fields be cultivated?, I wondered. I could think of some reasons: the farmer was letting one of his fields rest for a season; he had retired or died or was visiting his daughter in California. Then I thought of another reason: the desire not to disturb the ground.

This brought back lines from Canadian poet John McCrae’s World War I work, written while he served in Ypres in 1915. “In Flanders Fields” is written as if by soldiers whose graves lie under the wild poppies:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Learning this about poppies added new resonance to the poem as well as the beautiful vistas of red fields–especially meaningful in France where so many lives were lost.

McCrae, of course, was not the only significant young poet who died in The Great War. Britain lost several: Wilfred Owen, Alan Seeger, and Rupert Brooke, for example. Nursing sister Vera Britain  survived the war, but her brother and fiancé were killed in action. She served in Gallipoli and wrote: “Poets praise the soldiers’ might and deeds of war, but few exalt the Sisters and the glory of Women dead beneath a distant star.”

Thanks to McCrae, the poppy has come to symbolize battlefield death. At the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, an installation of ceramic poppies cascaded down the hillside on which the tower of London stands, an overwhelming display with each flower representing one of the 888,246 British service members who died in the war.

poppy poppies Beefeater London

(The photograph up top is not mine; technical difficulties led me to use a photo from Pinterest instead. The photograph at the end of the article is by Shawn Spencer-Smith and carries a creative commons license.)

Provence through an Artist’s Eyes

In case it slipped your mind, today, June 20, is #YellowDay. “How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun,” said Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers, grainfields, buildings, lights at night. His work dispenses yellow in abundance. Why? The sun-drenched south of France inspired him, and art research has demonstrated how his palette changed dramatically when he moved there.

So many charming vistas on our recent sojourn to the area—fields of poppies, mountains, charming villages set alongside canals or on vertiginous slopes. One of my favorite excursions was our visit to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where our guide had planned a four-hour shopping trip. It was market day, and the streets and squares would be packed with vendors.

One hour of shopping is about fifty-nine minutes too many for me, so since our group was small (five Americans), my husband suggested driving a very short way out of town to visit Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, the mental hospital where Van Gogh spent most of the last year of his life (1889-1890). Thankfully, everyone else was on board with that plan too. The hospital wing where Van Gogh stayed is still used by patients, but the compound’s other portion has been turned into a museum (and gift shop) that includes a recreation of his room and overlooks the garden.

Because he’d admitted himself to the hospital, he had the run of the grounds, and was even given an extra room to use as a painting studio. Reproductions of some of the 150 paintings he made there are on display outdoors against the backdrop of those same scenes as they are today, including precise profiles of distant mountains.

Our guide had an interesting take on one of his most famous paintings, “Starry Night” (pictured). While it’s often cited as evidence of his disordered mental state, she said that, as a resident of Provence, the swirling air and twisted cypresses remind her of the mistral winds, which blow so strongly and even violently at certain seasons.

Viewing Van Gogh’s work is always exhilarating, but tinged with sadness for his life cut short and for the lack of appreciation he received during it. I took heart from the quotation of his and hope it accurately expresses his feeling. It’s a great philosophy for struggling creative people everywhere: “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something also now, for wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning.”

Weekend Movie Pick: Wildcat

The award-winning author Flannery O’Connor is something of an acquired taste. You may be familiar with her Southern Gothic stories, her preoccupation with religion, especially Roman Catholicism (she attended mass daily), her deep understanding of human nature and its propensity to darkness and violence, and her startling candor. She said, for example, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Lastly, we recall her suffering with the crippling autoimmune condition systemic lupus erythematosus, which took her father’s life, and whose inevitable difficult progression she knew all too well.

O’Connor died at age 39. Now she comes blazing back to life in this bracing movie directed and co-written (with Shelby Gaines) by Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter, Maya Hawke, as O’Connor and Laura Linney as her mother, Regina (trailer), both of whom do brilliant work here. Flannery lived with her mother almost all of her life, and their relationship was obviously pivotal to the author’s view of human nature and its shortcomings.

O’Connor never gave her stories’ characters an easy way out, they never defaulted to a formulaic happy ending or an excess of sentimentality. What comes through in the stories is how strongly she rejected the shallow “niceness” of the people around her. Under her characters’ good manners and professed propriety, she saw a core of racism and religious hypocrisy. Her own mother was the epitome of Southern graciousness and, naturally, did not understand Flannery’s writing at all.

The film weaves together scenes from O’Connor’s life and relationships with dramatized excerpts from her stories. (It helps probably to be somewhat familiar with the actual stories, but works, regardless.) Interestingly, the mostly awful male characters in these recreations are played by a succession of actors, whereas Hawke and Linney play the sparring (mostly) female characters. They approach each of these fictional relationships fresh and without condescension. Relationships are complicated; you can love and despise a person at the same time.

Critic Jeffrey M. Anderson wrote, “This fine depiction of a great author avoids typical biopic trappings, instead concentrating on the rhythms of the artistic process and capturing O’Connor’s voice in a visual way.” Some critics object to the intrusion of the stories in the narrative of her life, but to me they illustrate so much, so effectively, showing us what she thought and found important.

Below left is a photo of the Little Library outside O’Connor’s childhood home on Lafayette Square in Savannah, which we visited a few years ago. She loved birds, especially peacocks, and raised many of them. The movie scenes take place at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in New York with her publisher, and mostly around Milledgeville, Georgia, where the family relocated when she was a teenager. We visited the house (below right) and museum in Milledgeville last year.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 56%; audiences 74%.

Hollywood’s Role in Cybersecurity

Television and movies may have a role in juicing Americans’ current tepid interest regarding cybersecurity. “When it comes to cybersecurity, getting the public to listen isn’t just a public service, it’s a necessity,” says the online security newsletter The Cipher Brief. A recent summit of its Cyber Initiatives Group included a top US cybersecurity expert and a Hollywood producer with a CIA background to explore this topic.

Why the urgency? Last month, big chunks of the nation’s health care system were booted offline in a pair of ransomware attacks, disrupting health care for millions. In the past few years, there’s been a steady stream of attacks on municipalities, hospitals, and pieces of our basic infrastructure, which Wired magazine calls a “ransomware epidemic.” We’ve read about dangers hackers pose to the electric grid, energy pipelines, water supplies, and many other essentials of daily life. These attacks may seem abstract—that is, until they affect us personally and then, possibly, catastrophically.

As the online organization cyberforpeople believes, “Basic security literacy is absent for the majority of digital citizens,” which is why its mission is to raise cyber literacy—making security issues “much more approachable and understandable by everyone.

The idea of a cybersecurity-Hollywood connection is not new; the site’s list of the eight best cybersecurity movies dates back to 1983’s War Games. Another cybersecurity site, SecureBlitz, has not only a more Hollywood-friendly name, but a list of 25 “best movies,” hardly any of which I’ve seen and I’m interested in this stuff!

If you saw the 2023 Netflix movie, Leave the World Behind, said CypherBrief panelist Col. Candice Frost (Ret.), you saw yet another dimension of cybersecurity. It’s an apocalyptic vision that goes beyond the risks of hacking to explore the impact of actual electronic warfare, driven by capabilities she says are already available.

While it may be desirable to take this issue on as a creative challenge, Hollywood corporations already are active in the cybersecurity arena, when it comes to protecting their own intellectual property and digital assets. They learned from SONY Picture’s bitter experience in a notorious 2014 hacking incident most probably engineered by North Korea.

Also on the CyberBrief program was former CIA analyst and director of Global Intelligence and Risk Analysis for The Walt Disney Company, Rodney Faraon. He believes entertainment media can be a strong driver of the national dialogue. If we want to create a culture that prioritizes information security, “then we have to actually be part of the popular culture.”

The goal here should be two-fold: supporting more authentic scripts focused on cybersecurity, and increasing attention to the information security risks that are part of everyday life, which can be woven into the background of other stories. Such a contextual approach gradually builds wider understanding of this complex and fast-changing issue.

You Are What You Eat

A recent vacation—a Food & Wine tour of Provence—created a hiatus in the blog posts here, but the trip wasn’t without nuggets of interest to people who like to cook and eat!

The trip included two cooking lessons, one out in the country with an entertaining chef named Yvan Cadiou, who has lived in many countries and picked up tastes and tricks from each of them. Quite a showman, with some television programs in his background. His class was fun and demonstrated a fresh and delicious take on familiar recipes—gazpacho with a melon rather than tomato base, for one. Everyone had the chance to do a little something toward the meal and all were rewarded with a memorable dinner.

The second cooking class took place during a morning, in Avignon’s 160-year-old Les Halles market (pictured), and was conducted by an American chef, John, who’s lived in France for decades. John seemed to know everyone working in the market and was constantly interrupted by their warm greetings. It seemed a very French experience. Cheeses, smoked meats, beautiful cuts of meat, sparkling fresh fish, fragrant breads, irresistible pastry, chocolates, the freshest fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices.

Chef John, being from California, felt it incumbent on him to point out shortcomings in the US food regulatory apparatus. For example, he showed us the labels for French fish and seafood. In the Avignon market, the labels provide the common name of the fish in big letters, then the precise species name, since some fish of different species have the same common name. Then exactly where and when it was caught, farm-raised or wild-caught? I can find out some of this by inquiring at my local seafood market, but it isn’t labelled in a consistent way. This cuts down on fraudulent labeling, an occasional scandal in the US. You think you’re buying one thing, but you’re really getting something else (probably less expensive).

He also said our “free-range eggs” aren’t necessarily so. Buried in the US regulations is the definition of what can be called “free-range,” he said—about an hour a day outside confinement—often an 8.5 x 11” cage—that’s right, the dimensions of a sheet of paper. Here’s a handy article. My grocery store carries eggs that are pasture-raised and certified humane. (Yay!) The yolks are several shades deeper than typical store-bought eggs.

What he said about vanilla would curl your hair. McCormick pure vanilla, the company website says, does come from vanilla beans. (Doesn’t the picture of a vanilla orchid on the box prove it?) Although a very small amount of vanilla in the US comes from “nonplant vanilla flavoring,” as Wikipedia delicately puts it (scroll way down), the thought of beaver glands is enough to start you reading labels with care.

Oh, and our innkeeper made fresh croissants every morning!

Bon apétit!

Photo: Avignon’s Les Halles market by Bradley Griffin; creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Weekend Movie? Challengers?

Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers has been getting good reviews (trailer). The cast is super: Josh O’Connor, Mike Feist, and Zendaya are the leads. And, if you’re as obsessed with tennis as they are, you may enjoy it more than I did.

The film cuts back and forth from the present, with three aging tennis prodigies. Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) is scruffy and down on his luck or likes to pretend he is—sleeping in his car, cadging meals. Art Donaldson (Faist) is near the top of his game, but faltering, more due to shaky confidence than lack of a serve. Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former teen tennis star herself, sidelined by a career-ending injury, is Donaldson’s coach—and wife.

The men were best friends from childhood, inseparable, and “complete each other’s sentences” close. They met Duncan about a decade earlier, both starstruck by her beauty and tennis skills. Then the real competition begins. Over the next decade they play her back and forth like a, well, like a tennis ball, and even though she married Donaldson, it’s just possible Zweig still holds first place in her heart.

The movie cuts between scenes set in the current day, when the men are playing a second-rate match in New Rochelle that both are desperate to win. Zweig needs the cash; and Donaldson needs the win to qualify for the US Open. But what they’re really playing for is Duncan. I get that, but these characters aren’t so interesting as to hold my attention for two hours.

All three of them are master manipulators, but at least O’Connor can take the edge off with his sly smile. You see their practices, their various matchups over the years, and a lot of this final match. Walking out, my bottom line was “too much tennis.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences 73%.

An Unexpected Gem: A Fire Museum!

On Saturdays in Allentown, NJ, the New Jersey Fire Museum and Fallen Firefighters Memorial opens to the public. It may sound a tad remote, but if you’re on the NJ Turnpike (unlucky you) approaching exit 7A, you’re only 4.5 miles away!

It’s a volunteer-run facility, and the time investment and thoughtfulness of the volunteers are evident at every turn. The museum building has an interesting collection of esoterica. You find out how fire alarm boxes work. You find out about “fire grenades” (glass bulbs filled with water or carbon tetrachloride thrown at the base of a presumably small fire. They were outlawed in 1954 not only because of hazardous broken glass, but because burning carbon tet produces phosgene, the deadliest WWI gas). You find out why US firefighters’ helmets have such an unusual shape: the long back brim keeps water from running down inside the firefighters’ collar, and the peaked front, often featuring an animal, can be used to break glass), and much more.

The photo above shows a hand-pumper purchased in 1822 by the Crosswicks (NJ) Fire Department for $100. Damaged at a fire, it was rebuilt in 1850 and still being used in 1922—giving the community more than 100 years of service! The horse-drawn fire wagon pictured below is from 1789, the year George Washington became President. (The flowers seem an unusual touch, though early luxury automobiles sometimes offered bud vases, as did the Volkswagen Beetle, with its blumenvasen.)

A barn adjacent to the museum houses a fantastic collection of mostly vintage fire trucks, mostly restored to dramatic beauty (see more here). Lots of red paint. Clearly a labor of love. Kids (adults too, I suppose) can sit in the driver’s seat. Also there’s a gift shop in the museum. If you’re in the market for a stuffed Dalmatian, you’re at the right place. Another reason kids will enjoy this museum? A roomful of fire trucks and related toys.

The memorial component is woven into mission of the organization. The website includes a list of fallen firefighters, noting nine whose Last Alarm was in 2021, 12 in 2020, and a list of 107 whose service dates back more than 200 years. An area is set aside to honor the 343 firefighters and paramedics killed on 9/11. The memorial itself will be on the Museum grounds, when it’s complete.

From One White House to Another

Herbert Hoover is one of only two US Presidents (John F. Kennedy was the other) who declined to accept pay for that job—a rather thankless one in Hoover’s case. His personal fortune and Quaker values made that choice possible. Was he heir to a life of wealth and privilege? Not at all. He was born in 1874 in the two-room Iowa cottage pictured and lived there with his parents and two siblings.

At age 9, Herb became an orphan, and family members took the children in, eventually sending him to an Uncle in Oregon. He traveled there by train, by himself, at age 11. The uncle was a lumberman, but also ran a Quaker school, which must have been a pretty good one, because, besides learning his uncle’s business, Herb was a member of the first class at the then-new Stanford University (now home of the Hoover Institution).

He studied geology, aiming toward a career as a mining engineer, met his to-be wife Lou (the first woman student in Stanford’s geology department), and eventually worked for a British mining company. Sent to Australia, he discovered a sizeable gold mine, which was the foundation of his personal fortune. He and Lou were living in China when the Boxer rebellion broke out, and she remembered sweeping the brass cartridge cases off the front porch every morning.

Hoover made his name in public service by helping Americans stranded in Europe at the start of World War I, then managing famine relief efforts in Europe after the war (and later after World War II). He relied on his own and others’ volunteerism, and a fundamental tenet of his personal philosophy was that, if you ask people to help, they will. Alas, this worked against him after he became President, just before the start of the Great Depression. Too many people were affected. His conviction that government’s role in relieving poverty should be minimal contributed greatly to his unpopularity, and for many years, the good things he accomplished were overlooked.

Hoover had a lifelong interest in the Boys’ Clubs of America, as Lou did with the Girl Scouts’ organization. I was surprised and glad to learn that there was more than I thought to his legacy; it’s a shame that a career of serving others is obscured by the dark shadow of the early 1930s and a financial catastrophe too big for him to manage.

On our recent Midwest trip, we visited West Branch, Iowa (just east of Iowa City), his boyhood home, where his Presidential Library and Museum are located, along with his birthplace cottage, gravesite, and other late-1800s buildings. Not on the beaten path, but well worth a visit.