Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans' Day Weekend

We had a lot of fun this weekend.

My mother was well-rested going into the weekend because she had had so much help getting the house and food ready for everyone.

My father was well-rested, too—he said his trip to Zurich had not been tiring, and that he had enjoyed the opportunity to see a little of the city, and to attend a performance of “Konigskinder” at the Zurich Opera—and he had had a relaxing and restful flight back to Minneapolis. He was happy and content, sitting in the kitchen, with the dog at his side, when Joshua and my brother and I entered the house Friday night. He was very pleased to see us.

As soon as my father had arrived home Friday afternoon, my mother had fed him some beef barley soup, which she had made just for him. It is one of my father’s favorites. Then, at 6:00 p.m., my mother had fed him again, giving him some fresh broiled salmon, seasoned rice and broccoli.

We had a late dinner Friday night—it was after 9:00 p.m. by the time we sat down to eat. My mother had stuffed and roasted chickens because roast chicken is my middle brother’s favorite main course for dinner. She also had made homemade noodles for him, because homemade noodles are among my brother’s very favorite foods. He always gets homemade noodles on his first night home. We also had mashed potatoes, and peas, corn and carrots, and homemade cranberry-orange relish. For dessert, we had apples baked in pastry, with homemade cinnamon sauce. My father enjoyed his third meal in just a few hours after returning home.

The dog received his fair share, too.

After dinner, we remained in the kitchen, catching up with my father and my brother, until almost midnight.

Except for my mother, we all rose very early Saturday morning. I had to get up early because the dog demanded it, so Josh got up, too. My brother likes to get up early on his first morning home because he likes to participate, at least once, in the dog’s early-morning excursions to the park. We actually had a good time playing with dog at 5:45 a.m., even though it was cold and dark, primarily because the dog loved having three people to play and romp around with. He was full of spunk, and in bliss, what with three of us to join him in his early-morning fun. We played all the standard games with him he loves to play before we returned to the house.

When we got home, we found that my father was up, so all four of us sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours, eating cereal and fruit and drinking coffee and watching SportsCenter, until my mother came downstairs.

When my mother came down, we decided to skip having a real breakfast because we wanted to wait until my older brother and his family arrived, and have a real breakfast once everyone was present.

So we sat in the kitchen talking for another hour before we all went upstairs to get cleaned up. Afterward, we headed for the airport.

My brother’s family’s plane was on time, and we all got home just before 1:00 p.m., at which point we had a very late breakfast for lunch.

My nephew has recently started eating scrambled eggs, and he likes scrambled eggs very much. He can’t eat bacon yet, but he can eat small amounts of very mild ground sausage, which he also likes very much.

Consequently, we ate scrambled eggs and ground sausage for lunch, along with potatoes, biscuits and all kinds of fruit. We topped everything off with a fresh homemade orange bundt coffee cake.

When we were done eating, we just stayed in the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, watching the football games. My nephew had to take his afternoon nap right after lunch, but when he woke from his nap we played with him until dinnertime.

My nephew struts around my mother’s kitchen like he owns the place. He likes having lots of attention, and he keeps his eyes on everyone while he walks around, the dog at his side, strewing his toys all over the kitchen floor. He is completely at home in my parents’ house. He views it as his second home.

When he is bored playing with his toys, he likes to sit on my father’s lap or on my mother’s lap and be rocked and talked to for fifteen minutes at a time, after which he is ready to go back to his toys (and the dog).

The college football games gave my middle brother much pleasure on Saturday, because Iowa State, his alma mater, which is having a terrible season, won for the second week in a row. The games also gave my father pleasure, because Iowa won for the third week in a row, and for the fourth time in five weeks.

Iowa’s victory came at the expense of hapless Minnesota, which lost its tenth game of the season. This is only the second time in the history of the Minnesota program that Minnesota has lost ten games in a single season. Next week, Minnesota will close out its season at home against Wisconsin, and my father and my brothers and Josh and I have tickets for the game. It will be nice if the Golden Gophers can pull off a huge upset, but that prospect is very unlikely. The Minnesota football program is a complete shambles right now, with no improvement in sight. Next Saturday afternoon may prove to be a long afternoon for all of us.

The Saturday football games gave Josh much pleasure, too, since Oklahoma pounded Baylor and since Ohio State was upset by Illinois. Oklahoma will now move up in the B.C.S. standings. If Oklahoma wins out, the Sooners will likely be in the national championship game.

We ate dinner at 5:30 p.m. so that we would observe the dinner hour at my nephew’s regular time. Because of this, and because of our late lunch, we deliberately had a very, very light dinner on Saturday night: homemade tomato-cream soup, and toasted cheese sandwiches. This is one of my nephew’s favorite meals, which is why my mother chose it.

By 7:30 p.m., it was my nephew’s regular bedtime, and we were sorry to see him have to go to bed. He was fully ready for bed, however, because it had been a very big day for him, and he was tired.

His parents—and my parents, too—put him to bed, and he went right to sleep.

Saturday night, we watched a movie on DVD: Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story”, one of the finest movies of the 1950’s, in which Audrey Hepburn gives what is probably her finest screen performance.

“The Nun’s Story” is a very durable movie. Even though financed by a Hollywood studio, it is not a typical Hollywood film. If anything, it has always reminded me of a Robert Bresson film.

“The Nun’s Story” is a restrained, understated treatment of the story of Gabrielle Van Der Mal (Sister Luke), a young Belgian woman who decided in the late 1920’s to become a nun in the Roman Catholic Church in order to be of service in the Belgian Congo. Stationed instead in a Belgium mental asylum (punishment by her order for her perceived lack of humility), Sister Luke was, years later, finally granted her wish to go the Congo—where, to her disappointment, she was assigned to a hospital not for natives but for Europeans. She remained in the Congo until called home once Belgium was occupied by the Germans in the early stages of World War II.

Despite the fact that her father was killed by the Germans, Sister Luke tried to obey the dictates of her Church, which instructed its personnel to remain neutral in the conflict and to offer shelter and assistance neither to the Germans nor to the Resistance. Unable to do so, Sister Luke decided to leave the cloister and return to the outside world.

Throughout the story, Sister Luke suffers a series of crises of faith. Her crises were not so much crises of belief as crises of confidence in the Church, with its strangulating hierarchy and stifling rules. The final scene—in which Sister Luke is returned her civilian clothes and dowry and leaves the convent, walking out onto a rain-drenched cobblestone street—is one of the most famous scenes in the history of film.

“The Nun’s Story” is deeply affecting. Zinnemann presents the story of Sister Luke very simply, without comment and without overt drama or flourish, and Zimmermann’s very clean, detailed, subtle style makes for a very powerful film.

Hollywood studios were reluctant to finance the film, fearful that the story was too obliquely critical of the Roman Catholic Church. Only after Audrey Hepburn let it be known that she wanted to play Sister Luke onscreen did a Hollywood studio agree to sponsor the film.

It was Warner Brothers that agreed to finance “The Nun’s Story”, mostly as a “prestige” project for Zinnemann and Hepburn. Warner Brothers devoted $3.5 million to the film (an enormous sum for the time), but the studio never expected to see a return on its investment.

“The Nun’s Story” was a surprise hit at the time of its 1959 release—in fact, it produced the largest box-office grosses in the history of Warner Brothers—and its residuals over the last half-century have been enormous. It is that rare phenomenon: an art film that was also a popular and commercial success.

I don’t think this film would work with anyone other than Audrey Hepburn in the title part. I cannot imagine any other actress succeeding in the role. The film’s success, I believe, is primarily her success.

Zinnemann extracted a great performance from Hepburn in this film. Hidden, as she is, in a nun’s habit, almost all of Hepburn’s acting is done with her eyes alone, and yet she exhibits an astonishing range of emotions, a much wider range than in any of her other films. For two-and-a-half hours, viewers can’t take their eyes off her.

Zinnemann always cast his films supremely well, and he surrounds Hepburn with a superb roster of players: Edith Evans, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, Colleen Dewhurst, and a glowing Peggy Ashcroft, whose beatific face and gently spiritual presence almost succeed in stealing the Congo scenes from Hepburn and Peter Finch.

Zinnemann, who learned his craft in the documentary field, always preferred to shoot on location, and “The Nun’s Story” was filmed in Belgium and in The Congo. The interiors were filmed, not in Hollywood, but in Rome. This gives the film a genuine European feel and sensibility.

“The Nun’s Story” is almost a perfect film. If it has any faults, it is in its cinematography (Franz Planer), not quite elegant enough for such an elegant director, and in its musical score (Franz Waxman), a mite too standard and a mite too Hollywood for such an unusually subtle film. I suspect that Zinnemann had no choice but to accept the cinematographer and composer proffered by the studio—Planer was no doubt specifically requested by Audrey Hepburn (Planer had shot her first film, “Roman Holiday”, and would go on to shoot her subsequent two films, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and “The Children’s Hour”) and Waxman was surely imposed upon the project by Warner Brothers. (Indeed, Zinnemann’s autobiography mentions that he fought with Jack Warner over the score to “The Nun’s Story”, a score Zinnemann found to be too intrusive.)

We all enjoyed the film immensely. Joshua had never seen “The Nun’s Story” before—in fact, he had never even heard of it—and the rest of us had not seen the movie in a very long time. It was a lovely way to spend a Saturday evening.

On Sunday morning, Joshua and my middle brother and I rose very early again, in order to get the dog taken care of by 6:30 a.m. My nephew gets up at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time, and we wanted to get the dog exercised and return home and be ready to take care of my nephew by the time he woke. Early mornings were special for us, because early mornings were the only time during which we had my nephew exclusively to ourselves.

My brother is very protective of his nephew. It is beautiful to watch my brother take care of his nephew, gently holding him and feeding him and playing with him and caring for him. He will make a wonderful father some day.

When my nephew woke, we got him all fixed up, and we gave him his cereal and juice and banana slices. Then we played with him until my Dad came downstairs, at which point we turned my nephew over to my Dad’s care and went upstairs to get ready for the day.

When everyone was up and assembled, we had pancakes for breakfast. My nephew loves to eat pancakes, and he enjoyed them as much as anyone.

After breakfast, we all went to morning service. Fifteen minutes into service, my nephew fell asleep in his Dad’s arms, which was probably all for the best. Otherwise, it might have been difficult for him to sit still, and remain silent, for the full hour.

Back home, we had hot chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, another of my nephew’s favorite things to eat. Sunday was my nephew’s day, since we were going to help him celebrate his birthday this day, and all the food was specifically selected with him in mind.

After lunch, he took his nap, and my mother took advantage of this time to make his birthday cake. She made a simple white cake, but she decorated it with yellow flowers and green stems so that it looked very beautiful and very cheerful.

When he got up from his nap, my nephew was surprised to find that his birthday presents were waiting for him. He got all sorts of toys—building blocks, and puzzle toys, and small cars and trucks—and then his Dad brought out from the dining room, where it had been hidden, his main gift: a small scooter he could easily mount and glide around the house.

He loved it. He got on the scooter immediately and began propelling himself around the kitchen, smiling and laughing and carrying on with great excitement. The scooter made him forget all about his other new toys, at least temporarily.

We all helped him play with his new toys until dinnertime. He had a ball, and so did we.

For my nephew’s birthday dinner, my mother prepared a very bland pork tenderloin, because my nephew loves pork tenderloin. She also made whipped sweet potatoes, and lima beans, and fried sweetened apples, because my nephew loves all those foods, too.

After dinner, we gave him his birthday cake. He was very excited. He was surprised to see two lighted candles on the cake, and I’m not sure he understood the significance of the lighted candles, but he was able to blow out the candles (with a little help from his Dad). Then it was time to eat cake and ice cream, and he had a wonderful time. He liked eating the colored icing most of all.

We played with him until it was his bedtime. I think he had a wonderful birthday celebration.

After he went to bed, it was back to the movies again for the rest of us.

On Sunday night, we watched another Fred Zinnemann movie on DVD, “The Sundowners”. “The Sundowners” went into production as soon as “The Nun’s Story” completed post-production. If anything, “The Sundowners” is an even better film than “The Nun’s Story”.

“The Sundowners” traces a year in the life of an itinerant Australian family of sheep drovers in the 1920’s. There is no plot to the film, and yet it is a beautiful, if not wondrous, creation.

The film traces the family’s annual migrancy, as it herds thousands of sheep hundreds of miles across the Australian Outback, stops at a large ranch to spend six weeks shearing wool for a wealthy landowner, and moves on to a new progression of itinerant work.

The success of the film, I believe, rests with the performances of Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, beautifully paired for the second time in their careers (the first was John Huston’s 1957 film, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”). Mitchum and Kerr are entirely believable as a married couple, totally devoted to each other, although they must tolerate a constant tension between each other owing to the fact that Kerr wants to buy a farm and settle down while Mitchum wants to continue his life as a nomadic wanderer. Mitchum and Kerr play off each other exceedingly well, and the tension in their relationship carries the film.

I have always believed that Robert Mitchum’s work in “The Sundowners” was his finest screen performance. Mitchum’s portrayal of the migrant sheep drover is rakish and impish—and devilishly funny—but Mitchum is also entirely convincing as a devoted husband and father. It is a very complex performance, and yet there is an unaffected naturalness in everything Mitchum does in the film. Everything Mitchum does is offhand—with throwaway virtuosity, he never allows his “acting” to be seen. I credit Zinnemann for drawing this remarkable performance from Mitchum, just as Zinnemann drew Audrey Hepburn’s most remarkable performance from her in “The Nun’s Story”. Mitchum is nowhere near so multi-faceted in any of his other films.

Deborah Kerr is wonderful, too—Deborah Kerr was always wonderful—and she matches Mitchum step by step. In fact, Kerr offers the most marvelous moment in the entire film. Late in the movie, Mitchum loses the family savings on a horse race, the very savings Kerr had wanted to use to buy a farm and settle down. The disappointment on Kerr’s face is heartbreaking—and the shame on Mitchum’s face is heartbreaking, too—and Kerr saves the day by telling Mitchum that she is going to forget all about the lost money, forever, and never mention it, because she knows how impossible it would be for anyone to have to live with a martyr. This is a magical moment, and it perfectly resolves the situation. Kerr plays the scene beautifully (as does Mitchum). “The Sundowners” is one of Kerr’s finest performances, probably exceeded only by her performance in Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”.

“The Sundowners” was shot entirely in Australia, and principal photography required almost a full year to complete. The film ran over budget, and an irate Jack Warner flew to Australia and, immediately upon his arrival, fired Fred Zinnemann on the spot and assumed directorial duties himself (a maneuver he was to repeat again a couple of years later during production of “The Longest Day”). However, someone, somehow, managed to talk some sense into Jack Warner, and Fred Zinnemann was quickly rehired to complete the filming. A classic was the result.

Like “The Nun’s Story”, “The Sundowners” is almost, but not quite, a perfect film. Two of the subsidiary characters are a little too colorful, encouraged to bring a little too much piquancy to their characters. Peter Ustinov comes off far too strongly as Robert Mitchum’s sidekick, and Glynis Johns is painfully “cute” as a hotel proprietor of questionable morals. Both overact shamelessly. I believe Zinnemann may have encouraged this regrettable tendency on their parts, fearful that too many situations in the movie might come across as drab to a general audience. Zinnemann was never to repeat this mistake again.

“The Sundowners” received a positive critical reception on its initial release, but it was not a great success at the box office. Warner Brothers had no confidence that a film set in Australia would appeal to an American audience, and the studio gave the film very little promotion. It took many years—decades, in fact—for the film to acquire its current exalted reputation.

We all enjoyed seeing this film. Joshua had never seen “The Sundowners” before, and he loved the movie. He said it was one of the best movies he had ever seen.

This morning, I took the dog to the park by myself, because no one else wanted to get up at such an early hour. Returning home, my reward was that I had my nephew to myself for half an hour. I got him fixed up and fed him his cereal and juice. Then I played with him until my Dad came downstairs.

After breakfast, my brothers and Josh and I went out to play basketball and swim. We returned in time for lunch, and spent the afternoon at home.

We had a very early dinner—we ate at 4:30 p.m.—so that my brother could eat before it was time for us to take him to the airport.

My brother and Josh and I left for the airport at 5:30 p.m.

Josh and I dropped my brother at the airport and returned to our apartment. My brother will be back Friday night. Until then, Josh and I will stay home, and let my parents and my older brother’s family visit, undisturbed by us.


  1. Hey, Andrew. What a whirlwind of a weekend for you and your family!

    I saw "The Nun's Story" with my mother last year and it was an eye-opener. The film is arguably Hepburn's finest work.

    Enjoy this week!


  2. J.R., how have you been?

    Well, we basically stayed home all weekend, but we all had a good time.

    Audrey Hepburn IS good in that movie, isn't she?

    The first time I saw that film, I was expecting nothing, more or less, and I was very surprised how good the movie was and how good Hepburn was.

    I hope your week is off to a good start.


  3. Drew, it is good to know that you and your family had a good visit over the weekend.

    I have not seen either of those movies. I always gave them a pass. I assumed they were nothing more than typical Hollywood fare. Perhaps I should seek them out.


  4. Calvin, both films are very much worth watching.

    I have always believed that Fred Zinnemann was a great director, much undervalued.

    His autobiography is the most intelligent film biography I have ever read. Zinnemann studied music and law in Vienna before he decided he wanted to work in film. He was one of the few directors who ever worked in Hollywood who was both highly intelligent and learned.

    Did you know that Zinnemann lived in the UK from 1967 until his death in 1994?

  5. No, I did not know that Zinnemann lived here. I've never been much of a film buff, really.

  6. I saw "The Nun's Story" when it was first released. At age 14, I was too unsophisticated to enjoy it. And, as a Southern Baptist missionary kid, the Catholic context was unfamiliar and off-putting.

    I'm interested in your comment on Deborah Kerr in "The Innocents." I saw (most of it) when I was 17 years old. For some reason, it frightened me so much that I had to leave the theater. I've often wondered if the movie tapped into a very unsettled part of my psyche. I never forgot the film and recently bought the DVD. I've not yet had the courage or desire to view it. When I finally see it, I hope I'm not disappointed.

  7. Hello, David.

    Well, the Roman Catholicism in "The Nun's Story" did not put me off. I have a great fascination with Roman Catholicism, although I was born and raised Protestant (Presbyterian). Saint Augustine and John Henry, Cardinal Newman, are two of my key heroes. I have often thought of converting to Catholicism, although this will probably never happen.

    "The Innocents" is a very frightening film, if it is taken seriously. It is the best film treatment of Henry James I have ever encountered. Jack Clayton's reputation rests largely on that film and that film alone.

    Deborah Kerr is amazing in that film. Her very subtle gradations of emotion, and terror, are very finely judged. It is, I think, her greatest film performance.

    How was the Strauss and the Handel in Chicago? Did you get to go hear the Chicago Symphony this year?

    I trust you and your family are well, and eagerly looking forward to the holidays.

    My very best wishes for a joyous and festive Thanksgiving.


  8. Thanks for your kind wishes and inquiries, Andrew. I did, in fact, have a wonderful Thanksgiving. My daughter flew in from Chicago to spend the holiday with me and her mother. We gathered for a traditional meal at my sister's home. This was an important family occasion because my former wife's partner joined us for the first time. She was welcomed by all, including my 91 year old father and my conservative brother-in-law. People do change and grow. The acid test will be when I bring a date or partner to the table.

    I had a great time in Chicago as always. I was apprehensive about sitting through two long, unfamiliar operas, but am glad that I did so. Both productions were highly praised by John von Rhein.

    I enjoyed "Julius Caesar" more than I did "Die Frau." Although my attention span was challenged by 48 da capo arias in a row ;>), I left with a smile on my face. Of the three counter-tenors, I liked David Daniels the least. Both Christophe Dumaux and Gerald Thompson seemed to have more variety of tone. I thought the women were excellent. Patricia Bardon and Maite Beaumont, in particular, were very moving. And, the production itself moved naturally between comedy and tragedy. I couldn't believe the physical feats demanded of Ptolemy and Cleopatra. No "stand and pose" there. Some may have found the production to be vulgar, but it worked for me.

    "Die Frau" had its moments, but I wasn't blown away as I hoped to be. Deborah Voigt and Christine Brewer sang powerfully and beautifully, but even they had problems at times cutting through the dense orchestration. A tear did come to my eye in the final scene when the unborn children surrounded the four principals. Actually, it had sort of a current, "pro-life" sensibility that Strauss couldn't have foreseen.

    Interesting that you're Presbyterian. My daughter attends 4th Presbyterian Church on Michigan Ave. I enjoy their service, the preaching of the senior pastor, and the gay-accepting atmosphere.

    I'll be thinking of Josh when Missouri and Oklahoma clash for the Big 12 title. My daughter is a Mizzou alum, but I don't really have a dog in this fight. I do have fond memories, however, of titanic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska in the 1970's.