Soup 101

The rain hammered down. Ten minutes ago, the sun had upstaged it in the play of Portland weather, and was sure to repeat the performance in another ten.

Audrey cut celery and carrots into chunks, scrubbed the parsnips and rutabaga and chopped them, too. She peeled the onion but left it whole, cut three small x’s into the flesh and pushed a clove into each one. She tied sprigs of oregano, thyme and a bay leaf together with kitchen string. All of this went into the big cast iron pot. She rinsed the chicken, tore off the glob of fat just inside the cavity and set it on the vegetables. She filled the pot with water (about six quarts) to cover everything. She hoisted the pot (a heavy sonuvagun) to the stove, poured a teaspoon-sized mound of salt in her left hand and threw that in, and turned on the fire.

The water would heat slowly to a simmer. It was important that it happen slowly to draw out the flavors and gently coax the meat from the bones. A longer time, a richer infusion.

I’m missing something, Audrey thought… chicken, vegetables, herbs—parsley! Forgot the goddamn parsley. She checked the flame, waited a minute for the latest rain drama to end, and went outside.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

The midday sun soothed her back as she reached down for the parsley, one of the few bright spots in her edible garden. In fact the parsley would soon go to seed; she should pick as much as she could use in the next week or so to encourage new growth. Felder liked parsley…

Audrey was admiring the potted plants on Felder’s front porch when he opened the door.

“Audrey, hello, come in, don’t mind the mess.” He ushered her inside, which wasn’t a mess at all except for some cockeyed pictures of old movie stars—Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and was that William Holden?

“Brought you a little bonus from the garden,” she said, handing him a bag of the green stuff.

“I didn’t know you grew marijuana,” he said.

“Felder, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“Would you like some tea?”

“Oh, I would, but I’ve got something on the stove.”

“You could yell over the hedge to Joe. Have him check it.”

“No—no, he’s—” Audrey couldn’t finish the sentence.

Felder saw the tears welling in her eyes. “Unavailable?”

Audrey nodded. “He took a wok to L.A.”

“Odd way to get there.”

“Oh, no, I mean—”

They went out onto the porch. The sky was fifty-fifty, clouds to clear blue, and the air was fresh. Audrey explained with a few pauses that Joe had hit the road early, that he had been invited by a friend in Los Angeles—or was it Burbank?—to housesit for a couple of months. There was also a girl named Heather who was missing her stir-fry pan. Joe was determined to make it as a screenwriter, and all he had to do was to take care of the plants and the dog and the pool, and find some sort of job where he could meet more people in Hollywood.

Felder’s eyes twinkled. “People like me.”

Audrey laughed. “Yes, just like you, Steve Spielberg.”

“Well, I was never a household name. More of a Sam Spiegel.” He let her chuckle a little more. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, too.”

Audrey gasped. “You’re serious! You’re a producer? You never said anything!”

“Gave it up after Sarah died. The movies weren’t much fun anymore.”

“I’m, I’m stunned. Maybe I will have that cup of tea. What time is it? We could make it a cup of something else, couldn’t we?”

Felder looked up at the sky. “This soup’s clearing up. Why don’t we take a walk first?”

“Not to L.A.”

“Oh, what about your cooking?”

Audrey shrugged. “It can wait.”

She ran home and turned down the flame. The soup would be even better tomorrow.

©2010 Pam Wells

Popcorn futures

March 29, 2010

Joe’s forehead mirrored the complexities of the article he was reading online. “Mom, what are futures?”

Multiple uses of the word “futures” popped into Audrey’s head. Huddled in a blanket on the couch, she looked up from her newspaper. “Give me a category,” she said. “Fantasy, sci-fi, quantum physics, investing, philosophy—”

“Investing, I guess.”

“The futures market, then. That’s when you buy or sell something before it’s available, like corn or coffee. You decide how much it might be worth at a certain point in the future, and you try to factor in things like the weather which might affect supply and demand. Then you agree to buy or sell at that price. Why?”

“Some guys want to start selling box-office futures on movies.”

“Interesting,” she said. She stood up with the blanket wrapped around her. “It’s freezing in here.” She headed across the room.

Uncertainty rules: Is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) making a case for or against film futures in "A Serious Man"? (Focus Features)

“The studios don’t want anything to do with it.”

“I imagine they don’t,” Audrey said from the hall. “This dumb thermostat says it’s sixty-two in here.”

“Don’t blame the thermostat.”

“I’m not blaming the thermostat.” She turned up the heat and came back into the family room. “Let’s say I’m a studio—”

“Pullet Pictures.”

“Yes! I like that. Here I am, Pullet Pictures, and I’ve got a little movie opening this weekend—”

“What’s it called?”

She plucked it out of nowhere. “Over the Handlebars.”

“Awesome.”

“And Wall Street wants to bet on how many people are going to see it, taking into consideration what other movies are opening at the same time.”

“Okay… so what if you’re opening against The Bourne Extremity. Who wouldn’t bet against Handlebars?”

“Depends,” Audrey said. “It could surprise everybody and run away with the box office.”

“Because it’s a better movie.”

“Of course it’s a better movie! It’s a Pullet Picture! Or maybe it got more buzz, or maybe the Moon transited into Pisces. Who knows? A Serious Man was a good movie but it tanked, didn’t it?”

Joe looked it up on Box Office Mojo. “Two-fifty the first weekend.”

“See? You can’t put it on paper.” Audrey sat down again, getting comfortable. “I met a little man once. He was a serious man, a statistician. He told me he’d been hired to watch every romantic comedy Hollywood ever made and try to figure out a formula for success. He broke them all down by how tall the stars were and the color of their eyes and how far into the movie they had their first kiss. And you know what he found out?”

“What?”

“He found out he didn’t like romantic comedies.”

Joe cracked up.

“Seriously,” Audrey said. “That was the only solid conclusion he could come up with. And Wall Street thinks it can treat films like commodities?” She shook her head.

“I thought you said it was interesting.”

Audrey smiled. The most interesting part to her was how Joe could stir up ideas from far corners. “Yeah, until I thought about it. Over the Handlebars has my name on it. It’s my baby. I’m not too excited about trading on his little future before he takes his first step.”

“I appreciate that, mom.”

“I thought you might. How’s your screenplay going, anyway?”

Joe threw her a quick look. “Pretty good.”

“Good. Now let’s make some popcorn and watch a movie.”

©2010 Pam Wells


To Wonderland

March 8, 2010

Trip to Wonderland

by Audrey Pullet

In case you wondered, the just-opened Alice In Wonderland is no tea party. It’s a fantastical feast whipped up by Chef Tim Burton. I thought I knew the story of “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll. Think again, I said to me, this Wonderland’s a trip.

Alice In Wonderland (Walt Disney Pictures)

I suspect many of us at the 2D screening were overflow from the 3D IMAX event down the hall. I was concerned that Alice might not hold up in two dimensions. But a few minutes into the film, I whooshed down the rabbit hole right along with her. The pace never lets up, except where it’s supposed to, in the obligatory “what should I do?” scene. Well, it doesn’t take Alice long to decide what to do. “It’s my dream,” she says. “I make the path.”

This Alice is not the little girl of the original tale. She’s a young woman on the brink of…of a dream, played wonderfully by newcomer Mia Wasikowska. Johnny Depp, who always takes his characters to the brink, is a crazed and clever Mad Hatter. Helena Bonham Carter is the darkly daft Queen of Heads—I mean, Hearts. Anne Hathaway is the slightly off kilter, black-lipped White Queen; call her the Off-White Queen. Of the animagical cast, the March Hare and Cheshire bleu Cat kept me smiling.

This Alice holds up well in two dimensions, thanks in great part to screenwriter Linda Woolverton. But I’m tantalized: what if the depth of 3D technology is not a third dimension at all, but a fourth? Because every movie, flat or filled, requires the audience to supply an extra dimension known as taste. How is it? Is it good? Do I love it?

Call me crazy, but I do. My compliments to the chef.

• • • • •

Audrey whacked the cabbage in two, sliced it thinly, grated a carrot and stirred in crushed pineapple, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. She mixed it hurriedly and set it on the table.

Adding a fourth place setting felt odd. Pulling up a fourth chair and seeing Joe sit there—weird. When was the last time?

“Look at this guy,” Joe said. “Ev, you seriously grew four inches.”

“No, dude,” Evan said. “You shrank.”

They laughed as if they’d already filled in the missing months. To Audrey, dinner was taking place in a time warp. Carl hadn’t said a thing. He’d come home from work an hour ago. She’d seen his truck idling in the driveway a good ten minutes, much too long to be listening to the end of “When You’re Strange.” He’d stayed in the garage, putting away tools, sweeping six-month-old sawdust from behind the band saw, organizing his screwdrivers (common and Phillips) which had prompted Audrey to ask him what in the world he was doing.

“Great coleslaw, mom,” Joe said.

Audrey smiled.

©2010 Pam Wells

The Precious Blind Side

March 5, 2010

Precious (Lionsgate)

The Precious Blind Side

by Audrey Pullet

It’s late, and all I really want to do is to get some sleep, but I have two more Best Picture nominees to consider: The Blind Side and Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.

I thought it would be easy to write about these two films. Both reassert the positive energy I’ve found so lacking in some of the others. Both attest to the power of love and acceptance to change young lives. Both tell stories about our fundamental need to be protected.

The Blind Side (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In The Blind Side, a well-to-do woman does everything she can to support a struggling young man. In Precious, a dedicated teacher does all she can to  keep a young woman from drowning in poverty and abuse.

Nobody does this! But they do it anyway. They’re too perfect, too rich, too good, too damaged, too abhorrent, too strong. So unlike me. Well, as Michael says in The Blind Side, “Courage is a hard thing to figure.”

Will The Blind Side win? Only if Hollywood believes in true stories.

Will Precious win? Maybe, because in Hollywood, anything can happen.

• • • • •

Audrey tied a string across the top of her shaggy boxwood hedge. She began to cut along it to make a nice, level top.

“How am I doing, Felder?”

“Pretty darned good,” Felder said. He brought his coffee from next door. “Boxwoods always look best with a neat haircut. Say, Audrey…”

“Hmm? What?”

“You were going to tell me about your son Joe the other day. ‘Til the thorns gotcha.”

“Oh, right. Well, funny thing, I just saw him last week. He showed up at the beach house while I was there. It was weird.”

“Got his mother’s sense of the dramatic, does he?”

“Hardly.”

“Maybe her hairy arms?”

“Felder!”

“How ‘bout her old Volkswagen bus?”

“What—” was all she said, seeing Joe pull into her parking spot. She lopped off a clump of boxwood, right through the string.

©2010 Pam Wells


An Up The Hurt Avatar Locker Education

March 4, 2010

Evan wasn’t used to running like this. It was harder in some ways, more exhilarating in others.

“Faster, faster!” Danni yelled. Her hair flew over Evan’s arms as he pushed her wheelchair in the bike lane.

“You won’t say that when we’re shooting downhill at thirty miles an hour,” he said.

“Yes, I will! Turn right, turn right!” She popped a Hot Tamale candy in her mouth.

Evan veered around the corner onto a quiet street. The quiet was not without its dangers. The left wheel suddenly ran into a pothole and would’ve dumped Danni onto the pavement if Evan hadn’t grabbed her. The Hot Tamales spilled to the ground.

“You okay?” Evan asked. He hadn’t seen her smile like this in the five weeks he’d known her.

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

“You don’t see me bleeding, do you?” Her mouth was red from the candy.

“No.”

“You walk and I’ll read.” She smiled at him. “I found your mom’s stuff online.”

“You what?”

“Now be quiet and listen.”

An Up The Hurt Avatar Locker Education

by Audrey Pullet

The next films on my Best Pic Hit List pick up where A Serious Man and Up In the Air leave off. Sure, Larry and Ryan have brief “aha” moments in the concluding frames, but the characters in An Education, Up, Avatar and The Hurt Locker experience real discovery. They get it.

An Education is a coming of age story set in 1960s London. Jenny, who insists on attending the school of life before heading off to university, gets involved with a suave older man. Don’t mistake this for a love story; she’s much too practical. Jenny holds back her heart, which holds back the film, but her head’s in the right place when she says, “It’s not enough to teach us anymore, Miss Wilson. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.”

The animated Up doesn’t fail in the heart department, although a better name would’ve been Down. Here’s a grumpy old codger who decides too late to fulfill his deceased wife’s dream. He ties a thousand balloons to his house and floats away, unaware of his young passenger. Their adventure takes them on a predictably perilous quest (okay, the talking dogs are genius) and back home with a new definition of family.

In a larger sense, family and coming of age define The Hurt Locker as well. Sgt. James is a member of a U.S. Army special team charged with locating and defusing Iraqi bombs. A flawed modern hero who lives on adrenaline, James is every adolescent who thinks he’s immortal until he puts a face on war. He’s the soldier who figures out where he belongs, and why.

Which brings us to Avatar. A few weeks ago I wrote that Avatar is a love story. Among the nominated films, it’s the only love story.* Avatar hits on all levels. Love? Check. Conflict? Check. Self-discovery? Check. Shouldn’t they just hand the Oscar to Mr. Cameron right now? Well, no. Checking all the story boxes does not make it a good story. But there’s the incredible 3D motion capture! Check! It’s worth the $16.50 for 3D (that’s $5.50 per dimension).

Will An Education win? Not unless Academy voters secretly channeled Audrey Hepburn.

Will Up win? Not if they’ve seen Danny Deckchair.

Will The Hurt Locker win? Maybe, if they value imperfect heroism.

Will Avatar win? Maybe, if they rank great entertainment over recycled myth.

*Why is that? It’s worth exploring …

©2010 Pam Wells

A Serious Man Up In the Air

March 3, 2010

Audrey flipped through the current issue of Travel & Arts Northwest in the small waiting room at the quick lube. The hard plastic seats always reminded her of the chem building lecture hall. The large board on this wall asked customers to change their fluids instead of analyze them.

She glanced up as a middle-aged man came in. He was an average-looking guy, not dressed for the office. He went directly to the coffee vacuum thermos and pumped himself a cup.

“Best coffee on the block,” he said. “Nice and hot.”

Audrey smiled. She avoided anything served in a garage.

“Oil change?” he asked.

Odd question, she thought. “Yes.”

The man nodded. “You have to be careful at these places. I know a guy whose engine froze ‘cause they didn’t tighten everything up and the oil leaked out. Another guy, he lost his transmission on I-5 ‘bout five miles south of Salem.”

A Serious Man (Focus Features)

“I guess we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” Audrey said.

“Pretty much.”

The attendant opened the door. “Pullet?”

“Good luck,” the man said.

Audrey watched him walk away, out of the building toward the street. Her car was the only one in the mechanic’s bay.

“Ma’am?”

Audrey tucked the magazine in her bag and paid with her Visa card, the one with double miles.

A Serious Man Up In the Air

by Audrey Pullet

Start the Jefferson Airplane soundtrack. The next two movies on my Best Pic Hit List suffer a common ailment: fear of flying.

In A Serious Man we meet Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a math teacher. Once upon a time, Larry’s family was cursed, and the curse has been passed down through the generations like a precious heirloom. Indeed, Larry has his problems, and this wouldn’t be a Joel and Ethan Coen movie if it didn’t get a lot worse for him. Funny thing is, Larry remains an observer because he doesn’t like change. And, evidently, change doesn’t like him.

Now consider Up In the Air, Jason Reitman’s homage to frequent flyer miles. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a professional downsizer, a guy who flies all over tarnation to fire people whose bosses can’t do themselves. “Our job is to make limbo tolerable,” Ryan says. Like Larry Gopniik, he doesn’t like change, doesn’t engage and doesn’t realize he’s the one in limbo. He’s scared of flying, all right.

Just for fun, I put Larry and Ryan in the same room. Here’s what they said:

RYAN

Today is your last day here.

LARRY

What have I done! I haven’t done anything. What have I done!

RYAN

This is not a time to look for blame. Your position simply no longer exists.

LARRY

(not listening)

We haven’t done anything! And—and I’m probably about to get tenure!

RYAN

I want you to take the next week to explore this strategy packet.

LARRY

What does that mean?

RYAN

Fill out the skill set work sheet… use the hopes and dreams diagram… and the tree of aspirations.

LARRY

A what? What are you talking about?

RYAN

The answers are all in there.

Will A Serious Man win? Only if Academy voters relate to Larry Gopnik, because the story has all the energy of a pretzel snack bag.

Will Up In the Air win? Only if Academy voters engage with Ryan Bingham, because they only packed for the week-end.

©2010 Pam Wells

Stairs in the sand

February 24, 2010

Clouds had arrived overnight, sheeting the northern Oregon coast in gray. A cold morning rain had convinced Audrey to build a fire. Joe’s door was still closed, so she nested into the good chair with her laptop, coffee and notes. The beast—the wordless draft of her novel—would have to wait.

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

The door squeaked open an hour later.

“Morning,” Audrey said. “I can make a fresh pot—”

“I’ll do it.”

She recognized this Joe who was still a non-morning person. He’d been one of those kids who reads under the covers and wishes on stars until they move halfway across the sky. He’d learned their names, built his own telescope to see them up close. When he was done looking, he’d given it away.

He laid on the couch waiting for the coffee to brew. “What are you working on?” he asked.

“Oh, a couple of film things. Articles.”

“Reviews?” He was awake now.

“Well, they’re more personal than that. Movies from one boomer’s perspective.”

“Huh. I didn’t know you liked movies.”

“I’ve had more time to enjoy them lately. That’s what happens when your kids grow up and disappear. You still take it black?”

“Any way I can get it.” He wrapped his hands around the mug. “Didn’t you ever want to disappear?”

“From where?”

“Anywhere. Be on your own. Make your own rules.”

“Sure I did. And then I brushed my teeth and went to school. Joe—”

“I’m not like that.”

“I know. Boy, do I know. What I don’t know is where you’ve been.”

He shrugged. “L.A.”

Audrey laughed. “L.A.? What were you doing there?”

“Writing. Screenwriting, actually. I took some classes. Met a few people.”

“People? Joe!” Audrey dropped on a barstool with her hands in her head. “I haven’t, we haven’t seen you since May, and we haven’t heard from you since, what, August, and, and now you’re telling me you met some people? In L.A.?”

“San—”

“Do you know I had to Photoshop you into the Christmas card? Just your head. I got one of Evan’s friends to stand in for you. And Todd, of course, Todd wasn’t there, being that he’s in Japan and we had to build him out of straw.”

They stared at each other.

“Mom, that’s just sick.”

Now, finally, they were in the same room. Joe added wood to the fire, and they spent the rest of the day in conversation about the difficulties of creating a dream world while living in a real one.

The sun broke through in the late afternoon. They walked to the end of the street where concrete stairs, etched by the sand, led down through a tunnel of vegetation, and out onto the wide beach.

©2010 Pam Wells