Friday, October 14, 2016

Enthusiasm is the Electricity of Life

The dichotomy of Richmond, that's what all those national publications fail to mention when they're singing our praises.

It's living in a town where a terrific and historic photography show such as "Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott" results in a mini-Gordon Parks film festival, for which I immediately buy tickets.

But it's also arriving at the VMFA to find the misguided Sons of the Confederacy with their enormous Confederate flags standing on the corner in front of the museum as part of their endless protesting about the lost cause.

My first thought is what an unpleasant welcome they'll make for any black museum or film-goers, but it turns out they're just as unpleasant for me. Walking by three flag bearing, redneck-looking men to get to the steps, one looks me up and down, gives me a smarmy grin and says, "Hey, there, hot stuff" as if I might actually respond to him.


It occurs to me that if all those national articles praising Richmond as a rising star and a shining example of the hip "new south" were to also mention this sort of nonsense, it might make for a far more realistic sense of this town.

Because, truthfully, it is all part of the flavor and color of who we are.

Inside the Cheek auditorium, I overhear some women behind me talking. One regrets not having read Parks' book "The Learning Tree" before seeing the film tonight. Another explains a friend's absence, saying she'll probably just watch the movie on Netflix.

The woman next to me shares that she's here because she'd read the book back in middle school and had just recently learned there was a film based on it. I'm amazed, but also older than she is, because I was certainly never assigned a black-penned book at that age.

The film is introduced as being the work of Renaissance man Parks, who not only wrote the screenplay, but directed, produced and wrote the music for it. Turns out it was also exceedingly difficult to locate, meaning that not seeing it tonight likely means not seeing it at all.

Shot on location in Fort Scott, the movie was the first by a black director in Hollywood, which makes me suddenly aware of how much was riding on what Parks did and how he did it with this film.

From the opening frame, the film was as gloriously Technicolor as you'd expect a major film to be in 1969. What I had a harder time reconciling was that although the film was set in the 1920s - straw boaters on the men's heads, candlestick phones - the women's clothing was pure late '60s with mini-dresses, low slung belts and knee socks.

Just as of the era was the young love montage, complete with teens feeding ducks and running hand in hand through sun-dappled fields in slow motion. Shades of Love's Baby Soft product commercials, for those who recall such things.

Judging by the fact that some people left during the screening, I'm guessing that they couldn't appreciate the particular nature of 1969 pacing, not to mention the overt sentimentality of how the story was told. To them I would say, consider what was at stake for the first black director's film.

Rather than join the curator-led gallery walk of the Parks exhibit afterward - in my own defense, I have seen it twice so far - I met my date in the atrium so we could scuttle upstairs for a glass of J. Mourat Rose before Amuse closed.

From there, we wandered over to Belmont Food Shop, running into my favorite mayoral candidate as we navigated a traffic circle on foot. "Stop writing nice things about me!" he joked.

Stop sharing my opinion? Never!

Although we were late arrivals, we were welcomed in to the fold of lingering diners and staff for dinner at the end of the bar while the usual '20s-era music played.

Continuing the evening's wine theme with a bottle of J. Mourat Rose, we began with gougeres and gizzard confit, followed by the bounty of the sea: crab and avocado, rare slices of tuna over frisee and seared scallops over squash and sausage.

When the chef finished up, he came out and joined us, providing an opportunity for me thank him for the surprise confit.

"My biggest stress in life is not enough duck fat," he explains semi-seriously.

It was while we were enjoying a fabulous butterscotch custard that a gentleman at the end of the bar brought out a 1989 bottle of wine for decanting, which the barkeep's research showed was one of only 13 left around.

Turning to those around him as the wine was poured into glasses for everyone in the room, the chef observed with a grin, "This is how we roll at Belmont Food Shop."

A deep garnet color, the nose on the Chateau Prieure-Lichine was earthy and full of dark fruit flavors, but its real beauty was with time, as the longer we sat, swirled and sipped, the more impressive the wine became.

That we'd accidentally happened into the generosity of a stranger only added to the pleasure of the wine. That such things happen as often as they do only adds to the running list of what's so wonderful about Richmond.

If I were writing those articles about our city, I'd mention such intimate attractions right along with the flamboyant flag wavers.

Because for better or for worse, all of it represents how we roll in Richmond.

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