Monday, February 28, 2005

Stargazer Pie

Suppose it’s the 1930s. Suppose you are a young, gifted Polish violinist. Suppose you are aboard an ocean-going vessel somewhere in the vicinity of Cornwall. Then suppose you tumble overboard and find yourself bobbing about in the drink. Luckily, you wash ashore and are discovered by Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. They take it upon themselves to nurse you back to health.

As a special treat, Dame Maggie instructs her unfortunately named maid, Dorcas, to make a Stargazer Pie for you. And not just your garden-variety Stargazer Pie but a special Stargazer Pie, made with pilchards. Dorcas takes a lot of flak from local fishermen who keep insisting that Dame Maggie wouldn’t know a pilchard from a colley fish (whatever that may be). But Dorcas, who’s something of a battle-axe, prevails and finally strong-arms a fisherman into selling her some pilchards. She makes the Stargazer Pie, a sort of custardy thing with the desiccated heads of the pilchards poking right out through the top (presumably so they can gaze at the stars, although they’re dead as doornails so how exactly is that going to happen?). It's very disquieting to look at. Dame Judi eats a bite or two of the pie, pronounces it “rather filling,” and murmurs that perhaps she will finish the rest of hers later. (I like to think she scraped it straight into the dustbin as soon as she was out of view of Dame Maggie.)

The above scenario is more or less the first half of the film Ladies in Lavender, the final PIFF film I saw. It’s a British film so I don’t really consider it to be “foreign”--except for the Stargazer Pie. That was plenty foreign. The performances were good, and there were charming English gardens and stunning shots of the Cornish coastline, but I have to say the premise of the film was utterly preposterous! I kept expecting that we would at some point learn just how this spectacularly talented Pole (played by Joshua Bell, by the way) happened to drift, float, or dogpaddle to a rocky beach in rural Cornwall. The film left that unexplained. I couldn't believe it. What was this young man doing so far from Poland in the first place? Didn’t he have any relatives who were worried about him? What happened to the boat he was on? Didn’t the people on the boat send out a search party or notify the British Coast Guard? Was there some sort of foul play? And, if so, why? Why didn’t the young man seem the least bit traumatized by finding himself in totally unfamiliar surroundings? Why didn’t he shriek in terror when confronted with the Stargazer Pie? Why didn’t the Cornish townspeople freak out when they found out he spoke German--at a time when Hitler was ramping up in Nazi Germany and anti-German sentiment left over from World War I would undoubtedly still have been rampant in the town?

These maddening flaws and omissions--and there are more I could list--nearly canceled out the aspects of the film that I enjoyed. However, apparently no one else in the totally sold-out theater allowed any of this to bother them. The film got a huge round of applause at the end. This didn’t happen at any of the other PIFF films I attended--most of which were much better films, certainly more compelling and better plotted anyway. On our way out, I overheard a woman ask her companion why the film never explained how the young man happened to go overboard. Her companion, in an all-knowing and snobbily superior voice, stated, “That’s a foreign film for you.” No. That’s sloppy storytelling and careless filmmaking for you. Aside from the distraction of the Stargazer Pie, I spent the entire film waiting for the obvious payoff--to have the mystery solved concerning how a megatalented Polish violinist happened to wash up on the coast of Cornwall. The filmmakers didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. My expectations were thwarted and I felt totally cheated!

Boycott Lavender!

Speaking of which--why was the film called Ladies in Lavender? Dame Judi and Dame Maggie didn't wear anything lavender. They didn't even dab at their tears with a lavender hankie. Nor did I see any lavender growing in their garden or, say, residing in a vase next to the Stargazer Pie. The film should have been called Ladies in Loud Floral Prints Looking After a Happy-Go-Lucky Pole Who Inexplicably Washes Up on a Beach One Day And Don't Expect to Find Out How This Came to Be Because We're Not Going to Bother Telling You, So There! Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, and Thanks for Your Eight Bucks!


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