Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Of Heart Shaped Potatoes

What a delightfully rainy day today was.

The most challenging part of my lovely walk was keeping an eye on street puddles because drivers certainly weren't and they had the ability to spray a poor walker on the sidewalk from 20 feet away. Today's weather was ideal writing weather and I banged away for hours, completing more work than I've finished in a week (it's been a busy week, er month, er, couple of months).

Come evening, Mac came to pick me up to drive through rain-crazed traffic for dinner in service of my hired mouth. By that I mean it took 40 minutes to drive what should have taken about 17. After speeding home (I love her, but she's the first to tell you she has a lead foot), we ditched the car and hoofed it to the Grace Street Theater for the final screening of the VCU Cinematheque series.

Whether it was the non-stop showers or that it was the last movie of the year and students are already mentally checking out, the theater had noticeably fewer students tonight and more members of the community (that's code for middle aged adults).

Never fear, though, some students were there, including the girl a couple rows back with wet feet. When her friend commented on them, asking why she hadn't worn waterproof shoes, her response was, "I'm sorry. I'm bougie and I like comfort." Clearly she didn't understand that being bougie meant aspiring to a higher class, not a lower.

The visiting film professor who introduced "The Gleaners and I" told us it was his favorite documentary ("Not to set the bar too low") and, as a certified documentary dork, I considered that high praise. He also made sure we knew he'd voted in the 2014 Sight and Sound poll that had rated "The Gleaners and I" as one of the top 10 documentaries of all time.

Alright, already, show the film. We wouldn't be here if we didn't think it was worth seeing. Even a bougie college girl couldn't miss the fact that he was a major fan of French director Agnes Varda, whom he characterized as having a horror of perfection.

Mine is more of a disdain than a horror.

Appropriately, the film began with a discussion of Jean-Francoise Millet's "The Gleaners," a major painting I know solely from books because it resides at the Musee d'Orsay, the one major Parisian museum I didn't make it to. Mac. on the other hand, had.

The painting was the jumping off point for Varda to take her small digital camera (the film was shot way back in 2000) into actual French potato fields once the machinery had harvested and the local gleaners arrived to scavenge what's left, namely potatoes too big or small for the marketplace.

Then she introduces us to a 2 Michelin star restaurant chef who, taught by his grandparents to glean, picks the herbs he needs for his kitchen from a nearby hill rather than pay an exorbitant markup for them at the market.  Besides, this way he knows the exact provenance of what he serves. A different kind of gleaner.

In Burgundy, we see unharvested grapes lying on the ground because of an edict in the late '90s prohibiting gleaning in Burgundian vineyards for fear their grapes will be used in lesser wines. No gleaning allowed.

For one memorable scene, Varda is shown plucking over-ripe figs off a tree and sucking the fruit out before tossing the rinds into the air. She giggles, saying come of the fruits are so ripe they've gone to alcohol. "I'm going to get tipsy!"

A lawyer in formal robes carrying a red book of penalties explains the rules of gleaning: it must be done only after the harvest and solely between sunrise and sunset. People in bars and cafes share tales of growing up gleaning.

We are shown urban gleaning after markets close (with advice to look for trash cans near bakeries), artists who glean for materials (painters and sculptors), orchard gleaning and those who glean by rummaging through cast-offs left on sidewalks.

Mac and I could relate totally to the residents of an island who waited until after a storm or an especially low tide to collect oysters. The local oyster companies asked only that they stay a certain distance from their poles and only collect a certain amount (whether that was 7 or 11 pounds per person seemed to be up in the air), but no one seemed overly concerned with enforcement.

Even Varda calls herself a gleaner, collecting, as she does, images and information that tell her where she's been (heart shaped potatoes, a clock without hands) as she shot this film.

Walking home, we chatted about the notion of gleaning and whether it happens in this country beyond dumpster-diving and alley gathering. Mac's guess was that if it does, its immigrants, not mainstream America doing it.

Not to set the bar too low, but isn't gleaning just old school terminology for zero waste? And shouldn't we all be on board with that? Personally, I'm broke, not bougie and I'd love to be gleaning oysters, figs and Burgundian grapes if I could.

And as long as I'm there, I may as well shoot for the Musee d'Orsay, too. I'm ready for my close-up, Monsieur Millet.

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