Pray, Love, Eat Hummus

I’ve avoided Eat Pray Love in book and movie form, despite various people urging me to either read or watch Right Away. At any given time, I have a half dozen books in progress and more DVDs that need to be watched; best sellers tend not to make the pile. Snobbery (which I have plenty of) is less a factor than time. As for the Julia Roberts opus, I probably will see it b/c it’s got Oscar written on it, and over the last few years I’ve made a habit of seeing pretty much everything nominated. Besides, while Roberts has grown on me since Erin Brokovich, I still know exactly what she’s going to do without having even seen the trailer: the toothy grin with an aw shucks look to the side, the calculated gawkiness, the slightly narrowed eyes of Fiery Intensity, etc. Even Javier Bardem isn’t much of a draw; it’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona with more sweep and money and without the divoon Rebecca Hall.

But for fairly mercenary reasons, I am interested in the new swath of movies starring and aimed at women in their 40s and older, so I caught Cairo Time today. I didn’t expect much, and it was well worth $9 to watch the dreamy Alexander Siddim stroll around a lovingly photographed (by Luc Montpellier) Cairo. Travel porn seems to be de riguer in Movies Made By and For Women these days, and writer/director Ruba Nadda does a fine job advertising the beauty of her native city – perhaps a little too fine, as politics are barely mentioned.

There is, at least, some undercurrent of irony, probably just enough to keep the movie from getting much mainstream attention. Patricia Clarkson looks great at 50, writes for a magazine, and waits for her husband, assigned by the UN to a Gaza mission, in a glorious split level hotel room with a view of the Nile. She’s stopped by Israeli police from taking a bus to see her man, but the scene is sterile, not particularly tense; you know she’ll be fine. When she talks about writing about the plight of Egyptian beggar children, Siddim raises an eyebrow over one of his olive-colored eyes, and later asks her if the article will appear before “How to Apply Lipstick Perfectly” or after “Taking Your Sex Life to the Next Level.” Clarkson is slightly miffed, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Little is at stake in the movie, so while it’s beautiful to look at and has an effective moment or two of unfulfilled longing, it feels like something of a lost opportunity. The overall aura is almost prim; it’s a much better movie than Young Victoria, but in the end has a similar insubstantiality. I naturally went to the only other Egyptian-written work I could think of, Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, a shaggy novel set in Cairo that interweaves a present day story, including impassioned politics, with a Victorian/colonial romance. Soueif’s character argue about pretty much everything: love, art, Palestine, Nasser, and even mint tea and water pipes. As obviously enamored as filmmaker Nadda is of Cairo, Soueif’s ardor has the real heat; through her, you feel like you’re falling in love with an Egypt of blood and flesh under an ancient sun.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with quiet, and Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum is heady proof. Cast almost exclusively with French people of African descent, the movie has a dreamlike, gentle rhythm and a tranquil joy in small things. Denis counts Ozu as one of her prime influences; her simplicity also reminded me of William Carlos Williams, with everyday objects imbued with meaning, a red rice cooker standing in for the plums stolen from the icebox.

It’s hard to imagine an American filmmaker able to make a movie quite so free of demographic concerns; Andrew Bujalski comes close, but even his characters jitter with dissatisfaction. But maybe that’s what we do best. When I was teaching, I asked the kids what were salient American qualities. The usual claptrap issued from the mouths of native sons and daughters; naturally, the foreign students’ take was much more interesting. One girl from Yemen said simply, “You never relax.”

I wonder what would happen if we could, if we could stop always watching out of the corners of our eyes for something else that will excite and distract us and help us avoid like hell any kind of serene center.

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