Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Down by the Station

  • Hello again!

    Last weekend I treated myself to a lovely little film that took its name from Rio de Janiero's Central Station. It got me to thinking about other movies that used a train station as a device to take us into the hearts and minds of vastly different people, in vastly different places. Rather than dwell on movies you’ve most likely seen, I’m going for the more obscure, but exceedingly enjoyable movies, one of which dates back to the 1940s. So hang in there; you’re just a recipe away from those movie picks. But first, as my grandmother used to say, we eat.

    A Real Handful

    This insanely delicious mix is the perfect snack for Super Bowl Sunday, Oscar night or any night you're in the mood for something special

    This recipe comes courtesy of my friend Margene, and it is incredibly good. While it boasts an admittedly pricey combination of ingredients, I will tell you that to my mind, similar packaged mixes and home-made recipes pale in comparison. In these belt-tightening times,if you can afford to splurge and buy all of the ingredients listed below without taking out a second mortgage or maxing out your credit card, don’t cut corners, but do go lightly on the salt, as you can always add more, but, at these prices, you don’t want to overdo it.

    Margene’s Super Snack
    You and your guests will go nuts over it.

    10–to-12 cups of various Chex cereals*
  • A can of premium mixed nuts (without peanuts - low sodium if possible)
    1 1/2 cups pecans
    1 can roasted almonds
    2 cups very thin pretzel sticks
    1 stick (8 tablespoons) of unsalted butter
    1 tablespoon McCormick’s Seasoned salt
    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
    ½ tablespoon soy sauce
    2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
    A sprinkling of garlic salt and paprika

In a saucepan mix the unsalted butter, seasoned salt, Worcestershire sauce, Soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic salt and paprika together. Spread the cereal/nut mixture out over a big roasting pan. Heat the butter mixture slightly and pour it over the mix.

Gently turn the mixture over with a spatula so that everything is well coated, then bake at 250 degrees for one hour, turning the mixture over as before, every 15 minutes. Cool before eating. Enjoy.

* Rice Chex and Wheat Chex work well, but you can also add some Corn Chex if you're feeling particularly flush. Both Margene and I have also substituted Kellogg's Crispix for the Chex cereals, and they work well as well, although the taste is a bit different - a little sweeter, as I recall. Margene says that some people might want to add a little more butter. "It's all a matter of taste, " she says, adding, "It's hard to ruin it unles you turn your oven too high."

Getting Back on Track

Okay, let's take a look at those railroad station movies I mentioned earlier. There are a lot of train movies out there, along with other flicks that have unforgettable train station scenes within them – [Love in the Afternoon comes to mind], but the following three movies are, I think, quite special. They are also what you would call ‘small movies,’ with little or no star power― something that actually works in their favor, allowing you to forget that you’re watching actors at work.

The movie that started me thinking about all of this was Central Station, a 1998 Brazilian film that begins in Rio’s massive and overflowing train terminal. Written by a first-time twenty-something screen writer, it is so richly layered, it’s hard to believe that someone so young could write something so deeply insightful.

The story line is a simple one. Dora, an embittered and totally unethical retired school teacher, scratches out a living writing letters for Rio’s illiterate. Day after day she sits in Central Station, as the poorest of the poor pay her to write and mail their correspondence. She takes their money, carries their letters home and rereads them, taking on the role of judge and jury as she decides which ones will be thrown away, tossed in a drawer, or posted - something, we soon realize, hardly - if ever - happens.

One day, a woman and her nine-year-old son, JosuĂ©, appear at the space Dora has carved out for herself in the terminal. The woman wishes to write a letter to the boy’s father, whom he has never met. The man, we are to understand, is, at his very core, a no good, drunken bum, and yet the mother pines for him, just as her son yearns to know his absent father.

Moments after dictating her letter, the mother is killed in a freak accident just outside the train station. It is here that the story begins to unfold, as the letter writer gradually and often unwillingly takes on the task of helping the boy locate and hopefully settle down with his father, who is was last known to have lived hundreds of miles away.

And so we leave Rio and Central Station behind, with the remainder of the film taking place on the road as this unlikely duo travels through to the other Brazil, far beyond the sun-tanned bodies, soft white beaches, bossa nova stylings and travel poster snapshots we are familiar with. This Brazil is punctuated by an endless string of dusty towns and roadside pit stops, linked together by a long and narrow highway.

While there are supporting players in this drama (all of whom are well cast), this is basically a two-person piece, with the principal actors in just about – if not every― scene. Fernanda Montenegro is wonderful as Dora, a woman who lies without thinking, and thinks nothing of tossing other people’s dreams away. Nominated for and winner of several awards in conjunction with this role, she is not always likable, but always believable.

That said, I believe that as good as she is, the film would not work without Vincius de Olivera – the ten year old boy who plays JosuĂ©. Prior to filming he had never appeared before a camera, which is unbelievable given the depth of his performance. Many of the crew members were also first-timers as were more than half of the cast. It is a credit to the script, director, and passion of everyone involved that it works as well as it does. And it does work well.

The second film on my list of ‘must-see’ train station movies is also the most well known of the group. Those who love movies and the theater will recognize at least four of the people involved here, including playwrite Noel Coward, whose play (Still Life) provided the basis of the movie's script.

Brief Encounter was directed by David Lean, who went on to direct such memorable films as Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. In this - one of his earliest films, he has two actors who, at the time, were quite popular, although the female lead (Celia Johnson)would drop out of sight after a brief - but well received career in movies like The Captain's Paradise with Alec Guinniss, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brody. Trevor Howard (The Third Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, Superman, Gandhi) is cast as the male lead in this ill-fated romance.

The story begins as the two are brought together by fate on the platform of a London train station. When she - a housewife who truly loves her family, gets a cinder in her eye, he - a married physician who likewise loves his family - comes to her aid. The attraction is immediate, as the two go on to risk everything in order to be together for a few hours each week.

Watching them fall in love, we are (as they are) sadly aware of the underlying futality of it all, and yet pulling for them just the same. This 1946 black and white film is an 'old school' romance, where less is more. For while you won’t find any X-rated scenes or overtly sensuous close-ups, the emotion, longing, desperation and pain are all there on the screen.

The last train station film I'd like to introduce you to is 1993’s The Station Agent. It’s the tale of a young dwarf (“little person”) named Finabar (Peter Dinklage)with an affinity for trains, who inherits a small parcel of land in rural New Jersey that includes a small and dilapodated train depot. Leaving his old life behind, he moves into the abandoned property, looking forward to a solitary life, far from the stares of curious on-lookers. And yet, almost from the first, that solitude is interrupted by a small but diverse group of people who work and live in the surrounding area.

The movie is an interesting mix of humor and drama, taking us into a world we might never otherwise know. Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Dead Pool, Six Feet Under, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) was―at least for me― the only familiar face in this strange and oddly satisfying wisp of a movie, but you might recognize several of the other cast members, as several of them have had recurring roles on some of TVs most popular series.

Ultimately, The Station Agent is a story about being different, but it is also about the joys and strains of solitude and friendship. And while it may appear to have nothing other than a train station in common with the other two movies, I would beg to differ.

All three films introduce us to characters who appear to have nothing in common with each other, and yet the more we know about them, the more we realize that they have quite a lot in common.

In the same way, we, as viewers, may outwardly seem to have nothing in common with the letter writer, ten-year-old Brazilian boy, ill-fated lovers or pint-sized loner, and yet, I would bet that just about everyone who sees these movies will relate to many of the characters' feelings and life experiences.

And there is still another common thread, as we come to realize that often, when we find ourselves in an unexpected situation, paired with people whom we would have never otherwise met (let alone befriended), we often find our world broadened, beliefs challenged and hearts rewarded.

I hope that you will treat yourself to one or all of the above films, while munching on some of Margene’s marvelous mix.

Till the next time...

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