Movies of the month: Love and Labor

In February, we watched movies on the theme “Love and Labor.”

Why a theme? It unfolded naturally in a dry spell for Netflix favorites (“Dead to Me” wrapped in three seasons, “The Crown” not ready for season 6, TV generally in a slump) and gave shape to a month of winter evenings.

Even better, a theme gave me something to plan for and the sense that we are Doing Something with that time between dinner and sleep. Which, I guess, is important to me.

Starting with a Shakespeare almost-comedy, we watched five films in which the protagonists either love what they labor at, interrupt love for labor, find love through labor, or, in the case of the last one, kidnap a sexist, egotistical boss and suspend him from the ceiling of his own country house. Which has very little to do with love, but it’s hilarious.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost”

In the goofy 2000 Branagh version of Shakespeare’s ambiguous comedy, a prince and three of his friends swear off women in order to study for 20 hours a day. Predictably, a princess and three of her friends show up at the gate – in nicely coordinated red, blue, orange and green ball gowns. Song-and-dance numbers set to 1930s Gershwin and Cole Porter songs actually fit the story and it’s all very delightful (scholarly vows get broken) until real tragedy strikes and frivolous love gets postponed while there’s real work to be done…multiplied by four. Shakespeare’s coordination of couples can be rather dance-like. The concluding montage of the characters springing into a World War Two-like war is not a neat happy ending, but leaves hope for the cold months.

Line drawing of two people in 1880s clothing standing by a large fire; text below
Illustration of the intriguing song at the end of Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ / PH. Creator: Hardy, Paul, b. 1862, artist. Date created or published: [S.l. : s.n.], 21st April 1888. Digital image file name: 35953.

“Lala Land”

Against the backdrop of freeways and movie sets, an aspiring actress and obsessive jazz pianist meet, dance around each other, and ultimately part ways to pursue their separate careers. Year later (spoiler alert, although I think I’m the last person in North America to see it), a Hollywood film version of the life they might have lived together, child and all, spools out in their minds to a wistful tune I’m humming aloud this moment. It’s very touching. Bonus common thread with “Love’s Labour’s Lost”: dance numbers featuring four women in almost-matching primary colored dresses.

“Julie and Julia”

We took a turn toward the culinary when we learned that TV cook Julia Child filmed her shows here in Cambridge, Mass. Two cooks laboring over their love for fine food – and then laboring over writing about food; the parallel stories of a food icon and one of her devotees fit the theme. After watching the film, we made our own pilgrimage to 103 Irving Street, where Julia lived from 1961-2001. It’s a private residence now but her kitchen is recreated by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Black and white image of a person holding a large kitchen knife over a row of raw chickens
Julia Child (posted by AustinMini 1275/public domain)

“Bottle Shock”

Good food needs good wine. I’d seen this film before but on an airplane, over someone else’s shoulder (I was “reading”) and therefore without sound. Very confusing. Audio helped me piece together the story of an early California winemaker, of Chateau Montelena, struggling with his own perfectionism, sprung to fame by a contest cooked up by a snooty British wine merchant and a fun scenario in which his good for nothing cellar rat son saves the day by distributing one bottle of wine to each passenger on his trans-Atlantic flight to get around customs.

“9 to 5”

Where is the love in this 1980 comedy? There’s definitely a lot of labor. Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda are co-workers at Consolidated, a company that serves no clear purpose but takes up several floors of a big city office building. Ruling their floor is a vice president of something or other, who spends all his energy sexually harassing Doralee, his secretary (Parton), being cruel to newcomer Judy (Fonda) and stealing ideas from office manager Violet (Tomlin). Inspired by a little pot party, the three ladies kidnap this jerk, hold him hostage at his own second home and make the changes they want to see at the company. Maybe the love is what these three coworkers have for each other and for themselves. Novelist Jennifer Savran Kelley told me about this film; when she asked Twitter for other films about women banding together, with humor, to work justice in the world, Twitter delivered a big nothing.

Filmmaking industry, please address.

Tumble out of bed/And stumble to the kitchen/Pour myself a cup of ambition…

PS: “Barista”

This film straddled the February/March border line, but it’s worth mentioning. A documentary following competitive baristas through a national competition provided the caffeinated version of loving labor fictionalized in “Bottle Shock.” I started watching incredulous (how much is there to say about coffee?) but finished inspired. And sad that the one woman in a field of white male hipsters didn’t make the finals. For a few days, I had very complicated thoughts about my morning coffee.

Watch out for my post on March movies. The theme is even better: Impossible Tests.

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