Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Worth Watching: Lilies of the Field (1963)

Title: Lilies of the Field
Director: Ralph Nelson
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

When we first see Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) driving along a lonely desert road, we don't know where he's coming from or where he's going. He's a drifter, skilled at construction work and apparently without a steady home or job. When his car overheats, he pulls into the closest place where he can get water: a small farm worked by a group of nuns who've come to the US from East Germany. Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) asks Homer, whom she calls "Schmidt" instead of "Smith," to help with some odd jobs on their farm. Homer does so in expectation of getting paid, only to find that instead of giving him money, Mother Maria invites him to the nuns' meager meals, offers him a place to stay, and insists that he's an instrument of divine will, sent to build a chapel for the nuns and the parishioners in the surrounding area.

Lilies of the Field poster

Homer figures out early on that the nuns can't pay him; they don't have the means, a fact confirmed to Homer by one of the locals, Juan (Stanley Adams), a friendly, business-minded man who isn't big on religion. Aside from Mother Maria, who's dignified and reserved, the other nuns - Sisters Agnes, Gertrude, Albertine, and Elizabeth - are like cheerful light-hearted birds, which almost masks the fact that they're living in poverty, barely able to subsist off their plot of land in the southwest US desert. So why does Homer stick around for a while, instead of immediately cutting his losses and driving off? We see at one point that he has the skill and confidence to land himself a job on the spot, so it's not that he can't find work anywhere. In part he stays out of a grudging sympathy for the nuns and a defensiveness on their behalf, which includes defending their choice to appoint him as a "contractor." It becomes a point of pride for him, especially when others scoff at the fact that the nuns have faith in him. Also, maybe he likes the feeling of being a part of the family, where he gets to break bread at their table and teach them English. They're strange and curious to him.

Furthermore, I think he relishes taking charge of the project and not getting ordered around on a construction site by another contractor. To Homer, building the chapel becomes a personal test and an opportunity. Poitier's strong performance conveys the struggle that Homer is locked into not only with Mother Maria but with himself. Building this chapel could tie him down to one spot for years and burden him with people's expectations, so what's the point? He doesn't want the commitment. On the other hand, he savors the challenge and perhaps the trust that comes with it. And Homer strikes me as someone who's rusty, possessing skills he hasn't used for years because he hasn't found work that's made real demands of his gifts. (Now, if only those nuns had money for him…)

Homer is a kind of everyman figure, and while I wanted to know more about his background, the role of timeless, aimless drifter makes sense for this movie. Lilies of the Field asks general questions about what people can leave behind them in this world, and what they can take with them. It's part of life to claim things as your own knowing you'll have to let go of them. But Homer also values personal recognition; he doesn't want to be seen as an instrument of a larger plan, perhaps interchangeable with others; ultimately, he wants to leave his mark on his terms.

Building the chapel in Lilies of the Field

Mother Maria isn't terribly concerned about Homer's indecisiveness. She recognizes it, but acts as if it doesn't exist. As far as she's concerned, he'll build that chapel. Not that she's forcing him to stay; she just acts as if it's a foregone conclusion. Mother Maria has her moments of tiredness or relaxed happiness, conveyed with subtle beauty by Lilia Skala, but what comes across most is her force of will. Maybe she needs to think of herself (and those around her) as instruments of a higher plan simply so that she can keep surviving and seeing something of her hopes realized. She brought her small group of nuns across the Iron Curtain and all the way to the US. The community they serve now, made up mostly of poor laborers, doesn't have a chapel so a chapel is what she'll build. Lack of money and building materials won't stop her, and neither will Homer's reluctance. Contradicting her is difficult, not because she threatens people, but because it's pointless, like telling the wind to stop blowing. At the same time she drives the other nuns, and Homer, to persist.

As two strong-willed people, Homer and Mother Maria share a kind of kinship even as they clash. What Homer mainly wants from her as the movie goes on is a recognition of himself as an individual. Mother Maria has a strong tendency to see people, including herself, as instruments of a larger divine will. What Homer demands is a more personal recognition. Mother Maria's acknowledgement doesn't mean everything to him. It doesn't make him over-joyed or grateful. But it would still be a kind of victory for him if she sees his hand in the chapel-building, a project he comes to regard as his own. It would be a nod of respect given from one formidable person to another.

Homer getting water as Mother Maria looks on

Memorable sights and sounds
One striking sight is of the five nuns walking along the road in the desert heat to Father Murphy's outdoor services a considerable distance from their farm; they try their best not to show fatigue, especially Mother Maria, who looks like she could survive in the desert by sheer will alone. Father Murphy (Dan Frazer) is the local priest. Burned out and heat-worn, he performs his religious duties without dereliction but also without passion.

The singing in the movie is memorable. The nuns sing a melodious chant that catches at Homer; he drifts closer to listen to them. In turn he starts up a rousing Baptist song, to which they chorus "amen" in response to each line. When the nuns are singing to themselves they pronounce it 'ah-men'; in Homer's song it's 'ay-men.'

I also like the play of emotions on Mother Maria's face during the closing scene as she sits and listens while the other nuns sing obliviously.

Stand-out scenes
There are many strong scenes, including some humorous ones; along with the drama of faith, of being chosen and challenged, there's also the comedy of a Baptist drifter surrounded by European nuns.

When Homer hears the nuns trying to improve their English using recordings that were meant for wealthier people ("Please send the valet up to my room"), he steps in and starts to teach them some phrases as well, having fun with it; a significant phrase, and one that takes Mother Maria rather a while to say, is "thank you." At other times Mother Maria and Homer point out different biblical verses to one another in order to communicate.

Poitier and Skala in Lilies of the Field

As for the construction of the chapel, it goes through several stages, reflecting changes in Homer's outlook. In this way the chapel-building takes on a kind of personality and spirit of its own.

Further thoughts
When the chapel is finished, what comes next? Mother Maria looks ahead at everything else that needs to be done. Homer considers the completed work and what's changed, and what hasn't changed enough, as a result. Satisfaction at a job well done doesn't last for long before restlessness kicks in again. No one rests on their laurels.

*All images link back to their sources (Wikipedia, Rottentomatoes, and Flixster community). [Post edited 2/2015]

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"When people stop in front of my place, they bring life to me."

I like this guy. He's got a big heart.

This Is My Home from Mark on Vimeo.

After Googling him I found out he lives in the East Village in Manhattan. I plan to visit him at some point and bring some friends with me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Week in Seven Words #107

The clerks at the library have sullenness down to an art. They would rather be anywhere than here, scanning your books and DVDs, and they let you know it with every dead-eyed resentful look.

On the train he nods off beside me, clutching his backpack to his stomach. He's quiet, asleep, self-contained - a great neighbor for a train ride.

Playing soccer in the corridor, I feel like I'm in a pinball machine, trying to keep the ball from zig-zagging into doorways and slamming off the walls.

She can't yet clear the couch, not consistently, so she settles for crawling under it, flattening out and squirming around in the dust, only her hind feet showing us where she is.

A steel bowl and in it strawberries, and over those, blackberries - the kind of blackberries that will always bring to mind Galway Kinnell's poem "Blackberry Eating" where the berries are so plump, firm and juicy you don't just eat them, you squinch and splurge well on them.

He reads four books to me, making his way through them with determination. The most daunting one is Green Eggs and Ham - 60 odd pages - but once you've seen 'could' and 'would' a few dozen times you're less likely to trip up on those silent 'L's.

The city is gentle dark and damp after the rain. I'd like to think that bad things can't happen on an evening like this.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ten questions

Over at the bookworm blog there are ten questions posed to any reader who wants to answer them.

1. What's your favorite book to film adaptation?
These days, the 1995 version of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, adapted from the Jane Austen novel. (In my thinking here, I'm not including movies that have overshadowed the books they're based on.)

2. What's the last book you read?
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. I recommend it, especially if you're struggling, stuck or starting out in writing (come to think of it, when do writers not struggle?). Or read it if you want to laugh; it's both funny and painful. In fact there are many good lessons in it even for people who aren't writers.

3. Describe yourself using just one word.

4. Juice or Soda?

5. Do you have any pets?
Not recently. I used to have pet frogs, newts, and fish as a kid. But some people dear to me have just brought a puppy into their home, so I expect I'll be seeing her often and she'll be sort of like a pet to me too. Except I'm not the one paper-training her right now, thankfully.

6. Who is your hero?
At the moment it's Marie Curie: brilliant scientist, innovator, humanitarian, and teacher, and also a wife and mother. She broke ground in many ways, both for humanity as a whole and for women. She was the first scientist to win two Nobel prizes in different disciplines.

7. Give me some blogging advice.
Off the top of my head I can't think of any suggestions; I like your blog as it is. Maybe for people in general - have fun with your blog, instead of seeing it as a ball-and-chain that's dragging you down. If it is, rethink things and change it, or give yourself a break from blogging. It shouldn't bring you misery.

8. When was the last time you laughed out loud?
This morning.

9. If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be?
I'd like to travel around the US for a few months, do a cross-country trip.

10. If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would it be?
What would you ask them?

George Eliot. I'd want to discuss her books with her, mostly Middlemarch, and hear her thoughts on them.

Edit: Just changed the blog title to reflect the fact that there are ten questions, and that I can in fact count.

Week in Seven Words #106

Of all the emotions I read in the puppy's eyes (or read into them), bewilderment is most prominent. Why doesn't she get to piddle on the floor and run around wherever she wants and chew on the DVD player? Why do her keepers alternate between belly rubs and scoldings?

Some of them yield to a lack of responsibility, the close of their life where they can be tended to and spend their time drawing, watching videos, or staring out of windows. Others bristle, even gently, against the activities suggested to them. They shrink away or turn stony when someone addresses them in a patronizing babying voice. Their body or mind might be turning on them, and there might be no one left who bothers to visit, but they aren't going to settle happily before a pile of coloring pages and play with crayons.

I don't know what he's writing about, as he sits in the subway car with a notebook propped on his knee, but his hand-writing is beautiful. I hope the words are beautiful too. I think he could make art of a grocery list with his languid looping script.

Because she can't see so well, she dictates the Valentine to me, a week before Valentine's Day. I write her words out on a red, purple and pink construction paper heart, and I wonder if the person she's writing to is real, or still alive and living at the address she remembers. She has a great memory for addresses. Her words are straightforward - "thank you for visiting me, I'm sorry I couldn't see you at the time" - and I hope this person is real and that the Valentine arrives at the right place.

An empty bandshell, the grand avenue of elms, an angel in a dead fountain. The bridge I cross shows up in sharp reflection on cloudy water.

I hope to be worthy of the risks I'm taking.

Geese and ducks struggle over crumbs from bread and muffins. Two of the ducks whirl in a circle of combat on the water, a taut coil of movement, until one of them breaks free and skips away like a stone across the surface of the lake.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Visual DNA Personality Test

You answer each question by choosing an image. What I like is that sometimes you can't fully articulate why you're choosing it, only that it stirs up certain associations or represents a hope or longing. Whoever made this test was thoughtful about the image choices presented.

Here's the test, if you're interested. It's fun too and gives you a decent write-up in the results. The overarching label I got was 'Seeker,' which by the description was quite accurate.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Week in Seven Words #105

The online coding tutorial rewards you with a blue check mark on every exercise you successfully complete, and it's a good feeling to see one surface on the page, a sense of progress and mastery, even if you later realize that you have to go back to those old exercises because you've forgotten something important about the correct placement of semi-colons and the script you're trying to write isn't working anymore.

I like brainstorming on the train. The rocking motion seems to loosen things up in the mind.

The blue doors on the school are like portals in a fortress, admitting no one. I expect that at any moment a sphinx will alight on the steps and demand an answer to a riddle in exchange for entrance.

The Shakespeare Garden is quietly alive in the winter sunlight. And on a plaque I find this passage from The Winter's Tale:
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
And with him rises weeping...

The marigold flowers are nowhere in sight; only the promise of them.

Boats drifting by on the river. I don't need to know where they're going.

Ducks and seagulls are scattered across the lake. When they take wing the water hardly stirs.

Two of my favorite things are Thing 1 and Thing 2 from The Cat in the Hat.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Urban trees

It's no secret that I love trees. My little blogger photo is a tree, and I've posted photos of them before. Now I have an excuse to post more. This past day was Tu B'Shevat, a Jewish holiday also called the "New Year of Trees." One custom to commemorate the day is to plant trees; another is to sample fruits and grains from the Seven Species.

So here are a few tree photos set in cities, where trees are needed keenly for the life and character they bring to any kind of neighborhood.




Monday, February 6, 2012

Week in Seven Words #104

During a bingo game at an assisted living center for seniors I'm reminded of junior high. Several participants are warm and easy going, but some huddle together and make pointed comments about people at other tables. They play where they've just eaten lunch, in what looks like a school cafeteria. And they compete for prizes of chocolate and deodorant.

At the bus stop there's snow and biting wind, a long view of the street and no bus in sight.

An Angus Deluxe at McDonald's with its side of fries and accompanying soft drink is a luxury meal to her.

We take turns coloring the snake in, stripe by stripe, before she douses it in liquid glitter to give it a golden sheen.

A heavy smell of rot in the subway station - dank coats, garbage on the lines, deposits of black grit on the pipes overhead.

I'm glad I'm reading this, to laugh, think and be encouraged.

At the group interview the candidates glance around awkwardly, both commiserating and competing with each other.