Imagine you have an appointment to pitch a movie idea to an American studio executive. You clean yourself up real good, you pick the appropriate wardrobe for the meeting, you drive to the studio, you proceed through the gate, you park in the designated parking area, you find the right building, you walk into the office, you wait because the studio executive is “running a little late”, you are finally ushered in, you take a seat, you accept the bottled water you have requested, and when the studio executive says,
“Okay kid, whadaya got?”
“A movie about how a seventy-six year old woman with leprosy teaches the solitary manager of a floundering pancake stand to appreciate the simple things in life while teaching him the secret of making spectacularly delicious red bean paste.”
Best Case Scenario:
You get to finish your water.
And it’s “even money” on their validating your parking.
Now you American movie mavens out there might reply,
“Oh. That’s just Harold and Maude, with bean paste.
True. But that was 1971, in the flickering afterglow of the “feel-good” sixties. Plus, there was no leprosy in it.
I am trying assiduously to steer clear of the “Things were better then” or its geographical cousin “Things are better there” formulation. Sweet Bean (adapted from the novel and directed by Naomi Kawase) is a little movie with the humblest intentions. Like a good meal made from natural ingredients, you leave the experience feeling, not bowled over which was never the objective, but deeply satisfied and cleansingly refreshed.
Which for me at least is a better reason for getting out of the house and going to a movie. Usually after movies, I want my money back. This time, there was a kindled interest in visiting Japan.
And I don’t even like bean paste.
What came to mind after seeing Sweet Bean – hopefully without judgment, although I have failed in that effort before – was, exemplified in our movies, our two countries’ contrast in prioritizing our respective cultural values. I mean, I know there are all kinds of Japanese movies, but there is also Sweet Bean. If we ever made movies like Sweet Bean, we do not make them anymore.
Our countries’ value systems are different. And although, artistically, I identify more with the Sweet Bean version – I even wrote a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode ending in the entire cast standing at a window appreciating the sunset – in everyday life, however, I am distinctly American. Minus the exchange rate for being originally Canadian.
(Whoh! I just typed “Canadian” with a small “c”. Would that be perfect? The only nation whose country name is not capitalized?)
Do you remember when I wrote about how hard it was for me to take a walk without the premeditated objective of “going to get coffee”? To me, that insistent “goal orientation” defines virtually all American movies. (Richard Linklater’s a little “the other way”. But even there, I detect a moral uncertainty in his “It’s the journey, man” intention.)
By and large, American movies are about setting an objective and then making it happen. You know how in The Three Amigos “Lucky Day” said everyone has their own personal “El Guapo” and for some people their “El Guapo” is overcoming their shyness and for others it’s a lack of education?
The Three Amigos was saying there are individualized ways of retelling the same story. In that same manner, American movies are a “Made-To-Order” reiteration of “The Winning of the West”.
The winning of the West was quite an accomplishment. (Unless you were an Indian.) This achievement made such a lasting impression that Americans, with personalizing alterations, take on that same mountain in every story we tell.
“For some of us, ‘Rising to the Top’ is our ‘Winning of the West’. For others, the ‘Winning of the West’ is exposing predatory clergymen in our newspaper articles, or overcoming adversity and making millions peddling a mop.”
You have to do something.
More than making magnificent bean paste.
“Listen to the story the beans tell”, the old lady instructs her reluctant apprentice, as the beans simmer patiently in the pot.”
That’s the entire movie’s message. See the cherry blossoms outside your window. Look up at the moon. Feel the wind gusting along, unimpeded and purifying the senses.
Be present. Be virtuous. Be decent. Be kind.
Oh yeah, and “Be tender”?
Shamefully, that word was so “beyond my consciousness” I had to lift it from a Sweet Bean movie review.
Our current movies upset me. There is a sense of imminent foreboding – terrorists, gang lords and “Legions of Awfulness”. Everyone’s trying to kill us. An occasional change of pace would be a welcome relief. Or is it an occasional change of paste?
I’m just not sure we are up to it.
We seem too busy re-winning the West.
(I know I got judgmental. But I was simply moved by that movie.)