Archive for November, 2010

Fried Chicken and The Secret Garden

November 30, 2010

The other day I had real wings for the first time in a couple years (from our favorite place here in Pittsburgh, Spak Brothers) and as I was maneuvering my teeth around the bones to get at all the bits of meat, I was struck by a vivid memory of fried chicken eating in a movie. It was such a strong and familiar sensation that I thought it must be from something I watched a lot in my childhood, but I couldn’t place it. Sure enough it hit me as I was trying to fall asleep the next night—Maggie Smith in the carriage with the drumstick in Agnieszka Holland’s Secret Garden! It strikes me now that the chicken in the movie could very probably just be roasted, even though I would have sworn it was fried as a kid. I felt fried chicken was anachronistic, and yet I was so distracted by the audacity of that choice that I didn’t question it. Either way it feels like a funny thing to pack. She picks up Mary from Liverpool very late, hours past when all the other orphans from India get picked up, and then they ride all night and Maggie Smith eats cold chicken in the carriage for breakfast. It sets the tone nicely—Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Medlock smacking away as she nonchalantly drops devastating details of Mary’s forthcoming life at her uncle’s manor, a large estate surrounded by an expanse of beautiful damp moors.

I recently rewatched my childhood VHS tape of the movie with my boyfriend. He liked it pretty well; I was overjoyed to see how little difference there was in my experience of it now compared to as a child. Plus there are all these treats that I was oblivious of as a kid, like Irène Jacob, Zbigniew Preisner, and Roger Deakins. The atmosphere created by the film is so wondrous and enveloping, in large part due to Preisner’s score. It still feels big and dangerous and vital to me. I love Kate Maberly, I love the way she over-enunciates (“My name is Mary Lennox”) and the way she looks at things with a little restrained pout.

This film has figured quite prominently in my history, helping shape my love of looking in cinema, as well as my inclination towards an aesthetic of dull cold and heavy clothing. Even though this is a movie about spring, it really romanticizes the mystery of winter. There are other little visceral moments that have stuck with me in addition to the fried chicken. There is a part when Mary approaches a breakfast tray that was set in her room hours earlier, and drags her index finger through the cold porridge and puts it in her mouth. I was startled upon rewatching it how quick and unexaggerated that moment is. I so relished it as a child that I used to whip my ice cream at night (I ate Breyer’s vanilla ice cream before bed every night; if you know me this should make perfect sense) with a spoon until it resembled porridge consistency and then tried to make a defined path with my finger as I drug it across and ate a glob. Swirled-up ice cream of course has a different texture and weight than cold porridge, so I had to perfect a way of cradling the glob so that it wouldn’t slide off my finger.

There is also the scene where Mary learns to jump rope in a hallway off of the kitchen. (In the background a cook is rolling out dough—elsewhere in the film we spend more time with her as she sings “Greensleeves” while slapping around and rolling a beautifully pliable little mound of dough. I think of that dough when making bread; it has the most dreamily perfect consistency.) Mary scuffs her little boots on the stone floor as she attempts to skip over the rope. I loved these noises, like scratchy, quick flaps in tap dancing. I hated my world of sneakers and carpets and I loved how her skirt kept getting snagged by the rope. It made me associate heavy full skirts with stone floors and dark hallways.

The scene where Mary, Dickon, and Colin chant and try to contact the spirit of Colin’s dead mother is the only thing I cringed at when rewatching the film. This movie also contains the lamest onscreen/offscreen kiss ever. It happens right at a cut as Mary and Colin laugh their way out of a weirdly loud smack, the physical component of which we never see. As a girl I was not amused by a kiss surrounded in giggles. Was it important or not? I refused to believe it really was a kiss for a long time until I sadly conceded that that was the intention.

While writing this post I discovered that the whole movie is on YouTube preserved in the beloved 1.33:1 of VHS, probably the only way I’ll ever want to see it. Around the eight-minute mark you can watch the chicken scene. I see now Maggie also has a hard-boiled egg to snack on. Again I am struck by how short this scene is. It’s strange how your mind grips on to little gestures in films, enough to create a sort of faux sensory memory. And there are other gestures you just want, so much that you appropriate them to create a brief, private cinematic feeling. This was very important to me as a child and still is.