Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Little Fugitive Movie - A 1953 American Gem

Little Fugitive (1953) Directed by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin
Cinematography by Morris Engel
Little Fugitive is a wonderful small scale American film released in 1953.  The film was written and directed by photographer husband and wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, along with long time friend and writer Raymond Abrashkin (as "Ray Ashley").  Morris Engel's All-American classic is widely regarded as one of the most influential and enjoyable films of the American Independent cinema.  It is a pleasure from start to finish, a little masterpiece that you'll never forget.  

When twelve year old Lennie Norton (Richard Brewster) is left at home to care for his younger seven year old brother Joey (Richard Andrusco), sibling relations get tested.  Lennie resents that their mother has left him with the responsibility to care for his younger brother when she is called out for an emergency to visit their sick grandmother.  Although the mother tells them to stay in the apartment while she is gone, nothing seems to matter and Joey and Lennie take to to the streets to play with their pals.  Lennie and his friends soon tire of babysitting Joey, so they decide to pull a practical joke on him: While playing with toy carabines they shoot at each other and they get the idea to allow Joey to shoot his brother Lennie.  They stage an incident to trick Joey but he doesn't know that Lennie will smear tomato ketchup on his shirt when Joey shoots him.  As soon as that happens, the boys tell him he accidentally killed Lennie, and Lennie pretends to be dead.  They tell Joey that the police will catch him and imprison him.  Joey, believing Lennie's pals, becomes frightened and runs away.  

With six dollars in his pocket, Joey runs to the nearest elevated train station.  He heads for one  the one of the largest playgrounds - Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, where the amusement park and its characters come to life through a child's eyes.  He seems to forget his predicament and spends the day wandering around arcades, pony rides, and the beach.  When the money runs out, he earns money for snacks by cashing in deposit bottles that he finds on the beach and spends the night sleeping under the boardwalk.  Joey indulges himself with amusement rides and carnival food, and as the weekend progresses, Lennie begins an equally frantic adventurous search for his missing kid brother.  When Lennie gets a call from mom, he is finally taken back to reality and knows he only has a few hours to find his lost brother before mom returns.  On a pony ride, the proprietor is suspicious that Joey is a runaway and tricks Joey into giving him his address.  The pony ride proprietor calls home and alerts Lennie, who comes to Coney Island and finds his brother.  It is an adventure  that will give viewers a glimpse of what it was like going to the Boardwalk in the 1950s.  

The film was shot with amazing realism that you can't believe there is a camera anywhere around filming the child as he spends the day running wild as a fugitive from justice at Coney Island.  The story is simple and touching and involves the viewer into the point of view of the child and his innocent way of thinking.  What ensues is a seven year olds fantasy.  It is an interesting snapshot of a time and place long gone.  A time when Pepsi bottles were returnable, when there were cotton candy vendors, carousels with a calliope, mechanical fortune tellers, arcades, and games such as throwing an underweight baseball at a stacked pile of weighted milk bottles.  

The team of filmmakers had a small budget to work with, but made the best of it by using a cast of non-actors.  The scenes were shot with a handheld 35 milimeter homemade camera discreetly filmed in the streets of Brooklyn and at Coney Island.  The camera used did not record sound, and dialogue was dubbed subsequent to filming.  Its value as a cinematic style setter is equaled by its value as a historical record of a city long gone.  It is photographed beautifully in rich tonalities of black and white perfectly exposed for a hot summer day.  It is an utterly charming story that poetically captures the joys and wonders of childhood.  

Morris Engel was a pioneer in the use of handheld cameras and nonprofessional actors in his films.  Using cameras that he helped design and his naturalistic films, influenced future prominent independent filmmakers.  Little Fugitive influenced the French New Wave cinema (La Nouvelle Vauge), a blanket term coined by critics for a group of french filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s, influenced by Italian Neorealism and classic Hollywood cinema.  Little Fugitive became an example of European art cinema.  Using portable equipment and requiring little or no set up time, the New Wave of filmmaking presented a documentary type style.  Filming techniques included fragmented, discontinuous editing, and long takes.  

French director Françoit Truffaut was really taken by this film and was influenced as he made his film 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959).  He was quoted saying, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for young Morris Engel, with his fine Little Fugitive."  High praise indeed, and as Trauffaut observed, this early milestone of American Independent filmmaking had a powerful influence on such later French classics as The Red Balloon, White Mane (Crin Blanc 1953), and Trauffaut's own Les Mistons.  

Little Fugitive won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Script Writing in 1954.  The film was inducted for preservation into the prestigious National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Little Fugitive is a time capsule preserving a nostalgic and innocent era on a hot summer day at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.   It is is a film without a doubt to be enjoyed by the entire family.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

Chocolate - Mexico's Gift to the World

Chocolate from Oaxaca
Photo © Leticia Alaniz 2012 All Rights Reserved
It is often agreed by gastronomy experts that the three ingredients that make the main pillars of Oaxacan cuisine are chocolate, corn and chiles.  In Oaxaca, chocolate is more than history.  It signifies the binding of a pueblo to its roots and that the divine (sacred) purifies, gives new force to, and celebrates life.  The Zapotecs, or people of Oaxaca believed strongly in a life force called , which translated means "wind, breath, spirit."  created life and movement for man and the things surrounding him.  The Zapotecs believe this force shook the earth during an earthquake, created lightning in the heavens, moved the clouds, caused the beating of the heart, and formed the foam in the chocolate served in a gourd.  

This may explain why, during the pre-Hispanic period, chocolate was a drink reserved for the nobles, who themselves only drank it on special occasions.  After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, chocolate ceased to be a drink exclusive to the nobles, but it commanded a very high price.  Nevertheless , over time, it became so popular that even the ancients saw in it one of the causes of an epidemic that decimated the population.  It was said that chocolate took away the appetite and all desire to work, and caused the onset of incurable diseases.  

The indigenous products most demanded by the Spaniards were gold, silver, cochineal (a scale insect from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived), and cacao.  The Spaniards readily embraced the use of the latter, accepting it as money, tribute, medicine, or food.  

Early in the evangelization of Oaxaca the Dominican friars desacralized the collection of cacao pods and accepted them as a source of energy and a remedy for kidney troubles, pleurisy, stomach problems, sores, and sunstroke.  

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the drinking of chocolate was habitual among the clergy, but there were those who criticized the practice of indulgence on this drink because they believed it should be used solely as a remedy.  A friar from Sierra Norte named Fray Jordán de Santa Catarina, was against this "abuse" of chocolate, maintaining that the devil had perverted this "medicine" by the sinful addition of sugar and by drinking it at all hours of the day.  

In Oaxaca, specifically in Santo Domingo, Santa Rosa, and Santo Tomás de Aquino there was no lack of chocolate in the fiestas, during which chocolate was enjoyed with torteras de pasta, soletas (ladyfingers), bizcochos (a type of yeast bread), pastelones (cakes), and flowers and figures made of pastry.  

By the early seventeenth century, this slightly bitter drink of chocolate dissolved in hot water or milk and sweetened with with raw sugar, vanilla and cinnamon spread across the world.  This hot chocolate, more suited to Spanish palates, was of course an adaptation of the indigenous Oaxacan pre-Hispanic drink that was drunk cold.  The cacao was mixed with ground maize, or masa, diluted with water, and often sweetened with honey.  It was also frequently flavored with with ground chile, herbs, or seeds like those of achiote and pepitas de calabaza (pumpkin seeds, which added different tones of purple, orange, black and even white.  

In the first decades of the seventeenth century, while hot chocolate was spread and praised throughout the world, the indigenous people of Oaxaca continued to prepare it in their unique ways.  For instance, in Atlatluaca and Malinaltepec, the cacao beans were ground with masa (maize dough), and drunk from tecomates ( a type of gourd), whereas in La Chinantla, the ground pit of the mamey fruit (pouteria sapota) was added to the masa.  

Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao tree that grows in tropical climates.  It is one of Mexico's many gifts to the world.  Today, it is mostly cultivated in the gulf state of Tabasco.  The region has been cultivating the exotic tree for over three thousand years, since Olmec times.  In later centuries it became prominent among the Maya in south-eastern Mexico and the Aztecs in central Mexico.  

As a superfood, it is considered one of the most powerful health-enhancing foods on the planet.  Chocolate in its purest form contains flavonoids, which act as antioxidants.  Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease.  Dark chocolate lowers blood pressure and cholesterol through the production of nitric oxide.  In addition, chocolate stimulates endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure, it contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant.  It contains caffeine and other substances which act as mild stimulants.

Even today, in many indigenous communities of Oaxaca, drinking chocolate signifies the honoring of life, being at one with family, neighbors, the community, and above all with God, the patron saint of the church and the dead.  That is why, perhaps without being aware of this, Oaxacans always serve chocolate, prepared with water, at their celebrations, wakes, and novenas (novenas are invocations; special prayers said in specific time frames and requesting particular favors.)  The presence or absence of foam on the chocolate is important and signifies the type of occasion at which it is being served.  For fiestas and reunions of the community, the thick and delicious foam on the chocolate atole signifies happiness, brotherhood and hope.  At wakes, sorrow is momentary, for in Oaxaca and all of Mexico there is no life without a fiesta, and there is no fiesta without chocolate.


Fray Eugenio Martin Torres Torres

Diana Kennedy: Oaxaca al Gusto an Infinite Gastronomy