Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 22, 2022 8:09 pm 
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A complicated sensualist

M.F.K. Fisher (1908–1992) is an American food writer, perhaps the greatest one, and she dates from a time when her métier most mattered, because there were so few practicing it. She is the author of 27 books, including a translation of the French classic The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin. She was praised by W.H. Auden in his introduction to one of her major books, the eponymous Art of Eating, as writing as good prose as anyone in America. She loved food and cooking from the days of her childhood in Whittier, California. She learned more about such things living in France and Switzerland, and through frequent travels, and wrote about them primarily while living in Northern California through a long and sometimes difficult life. much of it spent supporting herself as a single mother. American food was not so good, and it declined further after World War II when many farmers sold out and moved to cities and farms consolidated into factory-like mega-farms. In her beautiful, thoughtful prose, Fisher celebrated the senses and the taste. She made food sexy, and she didn't hesitate to write about sex too, and about life and food and sex as all part of the same thing. Sensitivity to "slow food" and fine food has grown in recent years and the time is ripe for renewed appreciation of M.F.K. Fisher's writing. She got those initials from editors who wanted to mask her being a woman, but - what a great name!

When you learn about who she was, you guess that Joan Reardon’s biography of MFK Fisher, Poet of the Appetites, has a more appropriate title. "Eating" isn't all her life or her writing are about, or all people read her for. Bezat's film fully recognizes this. Using archival film footage of Fisher, her works, and the places where she lived and many interviews with experts and admirers, the film attempts a full and admiring portrait.

But she was a complex writer and person with a complicated life and this film winds up falling short of the je ne sais quoi of a full M.F.K. portrait. It starts off on the wrong foot with a lot of bland blanket praise by a bunch of its talking heads - however distinguished they are in the fields of food and writing, such as novelist and friend Anne Lamott, California superstar restauranteur Alice Waters, and famous restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. They seem to keep butting in, and while they may provide validation (is it needed so much?), they add little to our understanding.

The film also starts off heavy-handedly by quoting from Fisher some relatively ordinary passages where she describes steps in her life, then some of her more generalized words about food and sensuality. The pungency, the specificity, the brilliance and contrariness of her prose, which garnered Auden's lavish praise and others mention, have not gotten pride of place here. We feel some of its subject's complexity slipping through our fingers. We can see why the documentary and the film about Julia Child, that simple blast of enthusiasm (who had a friendly relationship with M.F.K. and spoke highly of her), came across so much more clearly.

The film outlines "Mary Frances'" earliest life clearly enough. Her father bought the local newspaper of Whittier, California, a largely Quaker town (though they were Episcopalians), and she wrote for it while young. She briefly attended a number of local colleges. But she quickly married to be able to go abroad, to Dijon in 1929 with Berkeley doctoral candidate in literature Alfred Fisher (why Dijon we don't learn). This was an opportunity to savor the cuisine of France, to sit in the center of the world, at the Café de Flore in Paris on the Boulevard Saint Germain, to see how the French enjoy eating and life. Then Alfred began to ignore her, and she slipped off with the slim, blond Dillwyn (also known as "Tim") Parrish - in a manner whose sexiness and suddenness is a bit underplayed here. Sadly, Dillwyn, who loved M.F.K., as she loved him, and encouraged her writing as Alfred did not, had Buerger's disease, which required the amputation of a leg and caused rapid decline and terrible pain, and he committed suicide after they had been together for only four years. Then we lose track a bit, interrupted by the endless succession of platitudinous talking heads telling us what a good writer she was, while we're quoted more of her less interesting prose.

It would be nice if anybody gave the dates of the three M.F.K. marriages- they're not even listed in her somewhat inadequate Wikipedia article, which is condemned at the top with the remark, "may be written from a fan's point of view." Graduate student and scholar and Smith teacher Alfred Fisher lasted from 1929 to 1937, painter and illustrator Dillwyn Parrish from 1937-1941, and literary agent Donald Friede merely from 1945 to 1948, when she realized she needed to be alone. She spent her later life with her daughters, and later still, with assistants who helped her write. Toward the end, she struggled with arthritis and Parkinson's, having good and bad body days, and her many ideas for books up until the end much required help from others to carry out.

The film runs its camera over a lot of Fisher's writing, a pleasing if tantalizing innovation, to show how often she appeared in the pages of the much missed Gourmet, in The New Yorker, and in other publications, and hence what a part of the life then she was - and all the books, which from the start garnered praise in the literary columns and were not restricted to style or kitchen sections. We also hear Fisher's own voice, and see her moving and speaking. She had a seven-year contract at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. "I was called a 'junior writer,'" she recounts. "When I was working in Hollywood I was aware that there were men who were absolute nitwits who were producers..." She did what you don't do: she quit after two years. It was then apparently that she translated Brillat-Savarin.

There is much else, but the chronology goes back and forth, and back and forth to Anne Lamott and Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl to hold forth. There is a nice ending moment: a film of Fisher reading from her own work, where she cites a line this reviewer too has long liked: *that Sidney Smith said his idea of heaven was "pâté de fois gras to the sound of trumpets," and she offers a substitute: "fresh garden peas, picked to the sound of a cowbell." She smiles. A wise and pleasant moment, and a nice place to end.

The film, as mentioned, points out how American food, already bland and unsophisticated, deteriorated furtherafter the war, and how in recent decades (to some extent - but while fast food has burgeoned in Europe more and more as well) a sensibility has grown in sympathy with Fisher, with taste, season, farmers, slow food, so she is popular with young foodies. If this film whets their appetites to read her further, it will have done its job.
*M. F. K., an hourlong documentary by a California filmmaker, Barbara Wornum, released in 1992, was (reportedly) "a comprehensive view of Mrs. Fisher." Wornum followed Fisher for four years and said she did so because Fisher was "the most poetic voice of the working woman in the 20th century." One would like to compare it with the present film. For a factual review of her life that quotes some really pungent passages see Molly O'Neill's obituary in the New York Times. For more detail see the Wikipedia article, "M.F.K. Fisher." And obviously, we should read her books, starting with the best known ones and moving on from there.

The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F. K Fisher, 85 mins., is having its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 11, 2022. Screened in connection with the MVFF.

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