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Washtenaw Flaneurade
15 March 2007
Waiting For Black Moses
Now Playing: Gruff Rhys--"Cycle of Violence"
Live At PJ's has the understandable reputation of being a kind of uber-sleazy meat market, much along the lines of Conor O'Neill's on Friday and Saturday nights. Why was I there, especially on a weeknight? Wattstax was on, I'd never seen it before, and I wasn't about to let the atmosphere of general disarray (when WCBN can barely put verbally comprehensible DJs on air, I suppose it's too much to ask that a function of theirs runs smoothly--not that I'm ungrateful, and I'm sure it wasn't their fault that there was ear-splitting construction work being done or that the sound system took an hour after "showtime" to hook up--after which there was a pointless twenty-minute milling session, which meant that we started watching the movie about an hour and a half late) hold me back, especially when I'd walked two miles to see it. The endless wait did nearly drive me away, but a well-deployed barrage of soul and R&B, some from the movie and some not, like the Curtis Mayfield classic "Get Down," managed to keep me situated. When empty, PJ's actually looks pretty sweet, rather like that place in The French Connection where Russo and Egan notice notorious drug smuggler Sal Boca and listen to the Third Degree. I might actually have to check it out when full.

Wattstax was touted as the "black Woodstock," a film of the historic 1972 Los Angeles concert featuring Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, the Staples Singers, B.B. King, and others, commemorating the Watts uprising seven years previous (and directed by Mel Stuart of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fame). Once it got going, Wattstax was well worth the wait, even with the cute but slightly annoying hipstress accidentally kicking me several times from her higher-placed barstool. Like the best concert films, it's not just a straight record of the shows, but thematically looks at black culture of the early 1970s and the effect of and debates over "black power." The movie's introduced by Richard Pryor (and the concert itself by Jesse Jackson), and features a great many random interviews (alternately amusing and poignant) with Watts residents on a great variety of topics, ranging from politics to economics to romantic relationships (among whom appears to be a slightly younger and appealingly feistier Ted Lange--Isaac from The Love Boat). Real-life comedy enlivens the proceedings on a number of occasions--the crowning moment comes when Rufus "Prince of Dance" Thomas (you haven't lived until you've seen a portly, middle-aged soul singer in purple coat and little else rock a pair of go-go boots and get away with it) rouses the crowd to hustle a karate-chopping troublemaker from the field (and they hilariously respond en masse). The music's superb--the climax of the movie comes with headliner Isaac Hayes nailing his recently Oscar-winning Shaft theme song to rapturous acclaim, although my favorite was Carla Thomas singing the lovely "Pick Up The Pieces" (not sure of the title, but that was the chorus), which I recently heard on the radio (WCBN, curiously enough) and fell in love with--fantastic stuff. The rapid-fire editing and panoramic view of life and music gives the movie a propulsion that sends it sailing over the edge. I haven't actually seen Woodstock, but when I do, it'll have a lot to live up to if it's gonna be the template for this flick.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:22 AM EDT
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9 March 2007
Go Tell The Spartans. Really.
Now Playing: Air--"Ce Matin La"
First, the Oscars (late, I know)? Whatever. Actually, seeing those YouTube flicks made me much more critical of the Best Animated Short awards--simple, dreamlike, deceptively innocent fables of life and love have no chance with me as long as I know that there are clans of rock-stupid, perhaps ironically mush-mouthed, sexually voracious Bill Cosby clones on YouTube who probably deserve it more. My friend Lou came over to watch the show with me, marking the first time I've ever actually had any of my Ann Arbor friends over to my present house (and I've been there for over two years). I rather like the place, to be honest, but it's not exactly the best venue for entertaining company: a dingy, quasi-student hovel (as I suspect it was largely redesigned). It was very much the opposite at my old place (our parties became so heavily populated that the cops were called once by our cartoonishly nimby next-door neighbor). It was a pretty fun night (although I was a little exhausted by the earlier part of the weekend), so maybe I'll have people over again. The Departed was my Best Picture pick (saw it a couple of weeks ago) and it was wonderful to see Scorsese win (too bad about Pan's Labyrinth, though). Even better is the fact that Forest Whitaker now has an Oscar!! I hadn't seen The Last King of Scotland, but... I mean, it's Forest Whitaker, one of the most reliably cool (the fact that he directed Hope Floats, weirdly enough, actually makes him cooler) and taken-for-granted actors in Hollywood--this must be what it would be like it, say, Jeff Daniels ever won (or hilariously enough, Alan Arkin--and so it happened twice!). Oh God, why do I take this crap so seriously? Maybe because of the fact that three of the acting winners had been beloved cult favorites of mine for nearly two dcecades. I can't remember the last time that happened, and so I'll just savor the fact that they got a few right for a change.

I read a notice in the Ann Arbor Observer that there would be a free sneak preview at the Natural Sciences Auditorium of the new movie 300, the CGI-heavy Thermopylae movie, with Gerard Butler in (I imagined) the role of Leonidas. I'm not sure why I was so sparked to see this; I'm not the biggest fan of CGI by any stretch (one of the only movies in which it's really been successfully deployed is Shaun of the Dead, probably because they used it for the little touches) and 300 was supposed to involve massive gobs of it. If memory serves, I'd promised myself to try and get back in touch with the current cinema this year, and this was kind of an opening salvo. Lou had gone to see a sneak preview of Children of Men there some time back (and now I wish I'd gone with him, as I heard it was awesome), and he mentioned a large number of people, so I decided to get there early. On finding the Natural Sciences Auditorium, I found a rather morose-looking girl with a promotional shirt on who was supposed to be handling the passes (in fact subbing for her friend who worked for the production company). "Passes?" I asked, thinking "uh-oh." She told me that there had been about two thousand passes sent out to students for this thing, none of which was mentioned in the Observer. Of course, it was a dicey proposition that anyone was going to see 300 there, as some teacher was already showing, of all things, The Wild Bunch. I peeked through the window and saw Ben Johnson and Warren Oates going apeshit among the winecasks at the hacienda, so I knew they weren't planning on leaving anytime soon. I had just bought a Dr. Pepper from the Diag Party Shoppe, and so figured I'd wait a bit and see what happened, investigating the building (the hallway facing the library looks like it could be part of a medieval fortress--or the Atlantic Wall, for that matter). We chatted a little, I read some more of Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, a very good history of the Iraq War, and... two somewhat wispy models in very tiny skirts of the kind I thought had gone out of fashion, oh, on the arrival of winter (and who, it turned out, had let me in the building in the first place) and a woman doing promotions showed up. The night had become sufficiently bizarre to "repay" my time even if I didn't get to see the movie (I still hadn't finished my drink anyway, and I wasn't taking it out into that weather). What these people had to do with the movie I had no idea, but then the promotions woman took out two garish red leather jackets and told the models to take them to the restroom and wash them. They walked up the stairs, I somehow managed to keep my eyes on my book, and a number of phone calls were made to people in the know who then revealed something about Angell Auditorium A. I knew the foreign students' association showed movies there, and it made sense. I offered to show the production company girl where Angell was, and so we trudged across the Diag and through the frigid weather to Angell. It turns out I had the auditorium confused with one of the large classrooms where the Chinese students used to show movies, but we eventually found the place, as well as a couple of poor pastards who were still trying to get in, but couldn't, because it was filled to capacity. We found this out from the shushing house-motherly woman who answered the door. I would have laughed if everyone hadn't looked so sad (I'd totally given up by this point), and they weren't letting the girl in either (it didn't help that one of the guys was trying to pretend he was with the production company, too). My time was up, really, so I patted her on the shoulder with my scarf and wished her luck. Walking back, I met the other three coming out of the Nat. Sci. Building, told them the way, and browsed through Borders for a while before going home. There I discovered, looking at my calendar, that it was clearly marked Angell A. How I'd arrived at the Nat. Sci. Auditorium is really beyond me (because they had too, after all). I mean, what the hell? After that, maybe seeing 300 would just be anticlimactic, no?

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:35 AM EST
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7 March 2007
Y'See, Theo???
Now Playing: The Casionauts--"Southern Man"
Interesting week, interesting weekend (the ones before, anyway--I was sick half the week and most of this weekend).

Bury Me An Angel (1971): I almost wasn't going to see this Projectorhead-sponsored flick, an action that--it emerged--would have been profoundly silly. The February Current featured this description: "Dixie Peabody, armed with a shotgun, her Harley, and two friends, seeks to find the ones responsible for her btorhter's death." There's quite a lot of prima facie glory in that sentence alone, one that barely begins to hint at Bury Me An Angel's greatness. Peabody plays "Dag," a biker girl who splits a hilariously-filmed garage party (complete with coke sniffed off buckknives) with her brother only to watch him gunned down at the door by a transcendently goofy-looking assassin, the hilarity of whose recurrent appearances in flashbacks and dream sequences is almost sacriligeous to convey. It's actually pretty impossible to describe any of this little New World gem... it's like describing a soup (to be pretentious)--you can't really communicate the flavor through words, but you can describe the ingredients. In this case, those consist of bikes, guns, drugs, foolin' around, coffee, television apathy, witchcraft, Dan Haggerty, skinny-dipping, sex, fever dreams, revenge, barfights, alcohol, school administration, mountain scenery, and donuts, all crammed into an unbelievably rewarding eighty-five minutes. Peabody's performance is both insanely overwrought (in answer to someone's accurate assertion that she has "negative energy"--"What the hell is that supposed to mean?")and defiantly listless (whoa) but bizarrely convincing due to her imposing physical presence (when she arrives at a bar with her two friends, you gets the sense that she could literally eat you alive, or at least club you senseless and drag you to the Sadie Hawkins dance (or anywhere, for that matter). The actual showing was fittingly shrouded in weirdness; the last reel went missing and so, as the organizer searched frantically for his VHS copy, one of the other organizwers showed us five minutes of a fight scene between Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara from Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), an earlier Projectorhead film, redundantly and insultingly pointing out obvious plot points as if we were in kindergarten. The doors of the building were festooned with someone's posters: "Sarah Cook, I love you. Take me back." I wound up in a fetal position from laughing at dream sequences (and everything else), and haven't been with an actual theater audience that had such a good time watching a movie in eons. Bury Me An Angel... from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

Last Friday night, I went to see a show at the Blind Pig which was something of an all-star Ann Arbor lineup: Chris Bathgate, Starling Electric, and Saturday Looks Good To Me. I was mainly there for Starling Electric, partially there for Bathgate, and only a little for Saturday Looks Good To Me, who used to be my favorite band in Ann Arbor. It was a curiously mellow evening, in which I had a weird feeling of peace and serenity, not really what I think of in terms of the Blind Pig. Bathgate was good, Starling ELectric were once more impeccable, with a lot of the new songs starting to take root in the mass consciousness (I assume) and the band all the tighter for the result (they started the set with a lovely cover of Wings' "Who's That Knocking At My Door?", and will hopefully do "Junior's Farm" or "Jet" at some point in the future). The most interesting set was the last, probably because I wandered around and about, missing a few songs. I hadn't heard SLGTM in over a year, and though I was pleased to hear old favorites like "Alcohol" making an appearance, there wasn't really the same sense of ball-busting joy I used to get at their live performances. Still, it was a fun night, and we had an unusual amount of roaming time after the end of the show and before close, at which latter time the staff charges around the floor like buffalo-herders with Asperger's, hustling everyone into the freezing night with abusive zeal, despite the fact that some of them seem to enjoy coming in five minutes before close at certain area restaurants. I know what it's like to help close a bar/music venue after a hard night of partying, but do let's keep some perspective. Afterward, Margot, Adam, and I toddled over to the White Lodge for the now traditional Starling Electric afterparty, at which, for perhaps the first time, I avoided making an ass of myself (I think). By the time we left, it was about five in the morning, at which time all the cab companies in Ann Arbor apparently cease operation. Margot and Adam invited me to crash at their truly Cyclopean apartment, which I thankfully did, waking two hours later (and again three hours after that) on a sinfully comfortable couch to find their cat, the sable Iago, trying to make friends. Iago and I farted around for a while, after which Margot fixed breakfast and the two began to initiate me into the ways of people leading century-appropriate technological lives. By the time we got through quasi-virtual tennis and bowling to YouTube, it had turned into a lovably weird weekend, especially since it was still Saturday (all too often, as with the previous weekend, all the good stuff starts Saturday night, leaving only a few dregs of day until the workweek begins anew). Thanks again, guys!

And, yes, the blog changed. Dying clowns don't appeal to me anymore, and who wouldn't prefer the "Borderland" template to "Plain Jane"? Or even "Tangerine Nip"??? I mean, really...

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:29 AM EST
Updated: 7 March 2007 9:33 AM EST
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19 February 2007
Daddy-Batter Blues On The Wong Dong Trail
Now Playing: Frederick Delius--"Sleighride"
I've probably mentioned before that my critical love of the cinema came largely from the all-nighter movie fests held by my friends and I in high school and during summers home from college. It began on the cusp of the 1990s. I was terribly, terribly excited about the death of the 1980s (and despite certain occasional nostalgic twinges, I'm still pretty sure I fel the right way at the time) and started to realize that I wanted more out of my pop culture than simple mindless consumption. I got the latest Leonard Maltin guide and started checking off the titles I'd seen and the ones that looked interesting, and then set to work. I flatter myself and my friends that we collected together a large selection of flicks, mostly older titles, if not exactly monuments of Hollywood's ostensible "Golden Age" from the 1930s-1950s (that would come later)--Shaft, Flash Gordon, Sleuth, Becket, Shaft's Big Score!, Hercules Goes Bananas, Conan The Barbarian, The French Connection, Dark Star, Shaft In Africa, Caligula, Metropolis, and so on. We watched very little contemporary material, for reasons I thought I knew at the time but came to know much more fully this last weekend, one of the most entertaining on record.

My friends Tracy and Dan, who I met through Sara and who threw such a wonderful Halloween party last year, decided to hold a movie sleepover in honor of Tracy's birthday. I hadn't done one of these, even alone, since the old movie fests, and was awfully enthusiastic about the idea. All the more so when I discovered it was to be a 1990s-themed party, with trivia games interspersed between barrages of goofy and at times deliciously sleazy cinematic fare. It was an inspired choice, particularly as the ongoing 80s-nostalgia industry would have us believe it was all John Hughes and sensitive, introspective loners who just needed to be understood. The final third of the decade usually gets left out of the equation.

I decided to make a banana-chocolate tart for the occasion.

Banana-Chocolate Tart

1/2 cup chocolate chips
2 tbsp. butter
1/3 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup sugar
3-5 ripe bananas
1 tart crust
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (which I forgot)

Make tart crust. What I usually do is mix 1 1/2 cups flour with a pinch of salt, manhandle a stick of butter into it until it's loosely clinging crumbs, and then slowly pour 1/3 cup ice water into it until the crumbs are moist and congealing. You're supposed to do this with a food processor, but I get pretty good results by hand. Roll it out and then into a 9-in. tart pan and cook it with foil for 15 mins. at about 350-400 degrees, then for 5 uncovered.

Melt chocolate and butter together (I did it in a microwave), then stir. Bring corn syrup and sugar to boil in heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Lower heat and cook, stirring for 2-3 mins. until sugar dissolves into syrup. Remove pot from heat. Slice bananas into 3/4 in. disks, and cover tart shell bottom with one layer (oh, that's what I did wrong!). Whisk the egg and egg yolk together, then whisk a third of the chocolate mixture into the eggs. Do very gradually because apparently the mixture could cook the eggs, thereby scrambling them, and you don't want that. Whisk in corn syrup mixture, then vanilla, until you've got a smooth-looking custard. Pour over bananas, put tart in oven, and bake for about 40-45 mins.

It was the first time I'd ever tried a sweet pastry of this kind apart from sugar cookies and oliebollen, and it was rather fascinating to boil the corn syrup together with the sugar, later combining them with the chocolate-butter mixture and producing a kind of ganache to pour over the bananas. Either I didn't do something right or the recipe simply didn't allow for the proper amount of filling, because some of the bananas were still half-naked. Fortunately, that didn't seem to make much of a dent in the taste, which was excellent.

I walked over to their house Saturday evening, pausing along the way to take in a gorgeous post-twilight view from the Huron River bridge that crosses over from the Medical Campus. The sky stil hadn't completely clouded over, you could see Venus, and the medieval-looking buildings that lay along the ridge to the west gave a great Draculian feeling (prophetically enough) to the enterprise. On arrival, we had a rousing game of "Apples to Apples," and then got straight into it.

Easy Wheels (1989): A wolf-fetishist, female biker gang with a sideline in baby-snatching runs afoul of a male counterpart whose leader had some weird shit go down in 'Nam (the latter presided over by, of all people--I swear--George Plimpton!!!) and who spouts annoying existential love poetry which reminded me of Arcane's Nietszche-quoting henchmen in Swamp Thing. There are some rather creative assumptions made about Iowa, very, very old female wolves who "talk" with male human voices (and grunting, at that), and a pair of relative star turns given by Eileen Davidson (of the multiple personalities on Days of Our Lives some years back--"Stefano, he's King of the Vampahyers!!") and Paul LeMat (of American Graffiti and Melvin and Howard--nominated in the latter for an Oscar, if I remember right) as the gang's respective leaders. While not the best or most entertaining occult biker film ever made (for that, see here), this definitely had "spoof" written all over it. Unfortunately, it was one of those that just barely failed to pull it off, thereby transforming into the real thing.

Cool As Ice (1991): "Drop that zero and get with the hero!" This was initially the most exciting title of the evening, primarily due to the star billing of one-time singing sensation and man-hoochie Vanilla Ice. Even offering a summary of the plot just feels wrong (although somebody actually made it work here), but here goes: Ice plays "Johnny," a rapping biker who rolls into a sleepy Midwestern town and instantly starts making a play for a straight-arrow valedictorian. Her father (Michael Gross of Family Ties, the poor bastard), naturally enough, is in the Witness Protection Program, and so Johnny gets to vanquish not only her asshole boyfriend but also the Grade-Z equivalents of Howard Stern and Joe Pesci from the same year's Home Alone. Ice's performance is really just indescribable (paradoxically enough, in so many ways), although it reminded me of how much I used to love Leonard Maltin, as the review has this to say: "[Ice] does not exactly inspire memories of Ronald Colman." Strangely, this thing's cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, who only two years later would win the Oscar for shooting Schindler's List!!! That's a quality shift to rival Michael Reeves between The She-Beast and The Sorcerers.

Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996): Yes, "In Space" is really the subtitle. It's one of those Snakes on a Plane things, where the title promises exactly what you end up getting. I've never seen any of the Leprechaun movies, so this was a genuine eye-opener. The Leprechaun (Warwick Davis) is stranded on a mysterious planet--in space (it obviously doesn't do to ask too many questions)--with what appears to be a seductive dancing girl--who's really a princess (again, doesn't do...)! Fortunately, a crack team of Space Marines turned mercenaries (insert pre-existing disclaimer), sponsored by the deformed Mittenhand (Guy Siner, the fey Gruber of 'Allo, 'Allo and General Ravon in the 1975 Doctor Who classic "Genesis of the Daleks") arrive to make everything funnier. Weapons are fired, malevolent Irish sub-gnomes swim up electrical strams into human urethras in much the same way as those fish in the Amazon, there are sleazy not-quite sex scenes, bare breasts are shown (amusingly carrying an automatic death sentence)... in the end, it all boils down to there being a leprechaun in space, so complaining about anything pertaining to the movie just seems kind of gauche.

I dozed off through half of each of the next two movies--The Forbidden Dance (1990) and Double Dragon (1994). The first was the second of two lambada-centered movies that came out in as many years, and featured the very lovely Laura Herring (who'd go on to star in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive fifteen years later--which I still haven't seen) as a princess from the Amazon who comes to L.A. to stop the evil developers from tearing down her rainforest, in the process bringing the lambada to the States, confronting anti-Hispanic racism, and acquiring a yanqui boyfriend with stupid hair. I assume everything worked out, because I fell asleep halfway through the movie. There's not a whole lot to say about Double Dragon--it's a movie based on a video game, and they aren't usually any good (Resident Evil excepted, and not much). Admittedly, I'm not much of a gamer--I haven't really played since my brother still had his old Sega, and afterwards I never really felt the urge. I do wonder if Scott Wolf, on joining the cast of Everwood, was hazed in any way by being made to watch his performance in Dragon, because he's really very silly. His brother, incidentally, is played by future Brotherhood of the Wolf star Mark Dascasos.

9 1/2 Ninjas! (1989): I'd taken a cursory glance at the back of the video (it did me a world of good to see that most of these movies, bless them, were still on good old VHS) to see the plot, but apparently I hadn't taken much of an interest. It was also five in the morning at this point, so I wouldn't have been greatly concerned at any rate. Expecting a cheesy martial-arts ripoff, I found myself utterly taken aback by one of the more genuinely surreal experiences I've had watching movies in some time. Ninjas! is a parody of 9 1/2 Weeks (which I haven't seen), but with ninjas. Like Vanilla Ice's performance in Cool As Ice, Ninjas! is indescribable. Unlike Vanilla Ice's performance in Cool As Ice, I actually want to describe Ninjas! A ninja businessman--Joe--falls into a nasty scheme by, yes, an evil developer, to evict Lisa, a cute girl he meets ("somebody's mom," and I wish I could remember who said that). Everything that happens afterward is just so weird... Often very funny (with a few misfires, and the movie runs out of steam halfway, but just... weird. High praise from this quarter, obviously.

Die Hard Dracula (1998): Fittingly, the prize for "weirdest movie" went to the final contender, which, astonishingly enough, has nothing to do with Die Hard. Probably the weirdest thing about it is that it's all done on live-action video as opposed to film. At a time where I can hardly think of even any fictional TV shows that still do that, Die Hard Dracula stands out in the strangest way. The result seems to be video of someone's European vacation (and there are some Romanian or Czech churchgoers in one early scene probably well-deserving of a Borat-style lawsuit) mixed with some overwrought acting, school play-caliber set design (again, I wish I could remember who mentioned that), and near-softcore porn. We have a Mark of the Devil-style narrated introduction that, because of Die Hard Dracula's curious cinematography, resembles one of those late-80s proto-Discovery Channel documentaries of the kind prolific before the rise of Ken Burns. Then, a bunch of people in cast-off Renaissance Festival gear run around a castle only to encounter Count Dracula, who, in a stunning reversal of cultural assumptions, totally rocks this bloated Meat Loaf look (although they thankfully seemed to save a few bucks on his tuxedo shirt). Meanwhile, in the future, a guy who looks like Hayden Christensen loses his girlfriend in a freak waterskiing accident and understandably decides to get over his grief by visiting that place in Europe with all the vampires. After moping around Prague for what seem like geological eons, he gets in a car accident in Moravia and very sensibly starts running as fast as he can away from the road, to find a tavern in an "all mod cons" equipped village. The barmaid is the spitting image of his dead girlfriend. Van Helsing shows up (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin, who appeared in Chinatown and who endeared himself to countless grateful generations of James Bond fans as Mr. Wynt in Diamonds Are Forever, mincingly threatening Sean Connery), which is fine, since, ridiculous as this thing is, it's already better than Van Helsing (though probably about the same as Coppola's Dracula). They chase Count Dracula. They bargain with Count Dracula. They attempt to kill Count Dracula. Count Dracula calls women "stupid broads." Count Dracula goes to the dentist. Eventually, Die Hard Dracula reduces the viewer to a state of shock. There are stupefyingly awful special effects, worse attempts at "comic relief" (the Hayden Christensen kid is particularly maladroit in this department), some decent nudity in the style of late-night TV ads ("Do you have trouble meeting people? Do you want to meet exciting people who can show you a good time? Call 1-900-DRACULA!"), and a moronic ending that the filmmaker probably thought was daring but isn't (again, in so many ways). It's a wretched movie--there's really no getting away from that, but the scenery is sometimes gorgeous, there's at least one cool and genuinely scary scene towards the end, there's the sheer array of plot devices and decor (buried treasure, Dracula's ability with the ivories, the employment of safely public-domain orchestral music, including chestnuts like "The Blue Danube" and "Ride of the Valkyries" but more unusually Prokofiev's "Fanfare" from The Love For Three Oranges) and the mere fact that this thing exists at all is strangely inspiring; more than one person in the audience realized out loud that they could make a movie, too, if something like Die Hard Dracula saw the light of day (one could make the same argument for at least half the product coming out of Hollywood these days, but Die Hard Dracula threw the whole thing into major relief).

The movies were chosen pretty much at random, but there were a few themes that unexpectedly cropped up or figured prominently in the plots or imagery--flipping the bird, a callous attitude towards the abandonment or sacrifice of children ("I can always have another son/child"), and especially the wearing of lacy, white, anti-erotically elaborate women's underwear--by women, though the bottoms bore a slight resemblance to codpieces--of the kind that can still occasionally be seen in the back pages of the Metro Times. We all got several good laughs out of that, and there was a healthy creative energy to the weekend that lasted through breakfast at Big Boy, then a couple of brainstorming-type games back at Tracy and Dan's (resulting in the generation of at least one immortal catchphrase), and up to my return home, where I nearly ruined everything by watching Luis Bunuel's prestigious The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

Last but not least, the people in the movies could do worse than to read this (thanks, Georgy)!

Thanks, Tracy, Dan, Sara, Dug, Amanda, Olec, Dresden, Karen and Jason. Word to your mother!!

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 20 February 2007 4:58 PM EST
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14 February 2007
You Get Too Much, You Get Too High
Now Playing: David Bowie--"The Prettiest Star"
Yet another reason to stand firm against my least favorite holiday; I feel better already!!

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 4:39 PM EST
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7 February 2007
Throats Ripe For Polishing
Now Playing: Blur--"To The End"
Tuesday afternoon, after a truly appalling day at work, crabby and depressed, and worried that I'd be less than my usually effervescent self at Planned Parenthood Volunteer Night, I returned home to find my latest Netflix delivery in my mailbox...

Sweeney Todd (1936): Clocking in at a glorious hour and seven minutes (about ten of them devoted to a largely pointless little excursion in "darkest Africa" that could have been handled in about a minute of expository dialogue), the original of Stephen Sondheim's blockbuster musical is creaky, creepy fun, and my personal introduction to the "King of Grand Guignol," Mr. Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was known as one of the great horror actors, a peer of Karloff and Laughton who stayed in the U.K. while they went on to Hollywood fame and fortune, and despite the inevitable dating of that sort of acting, there's still something genuinely sinister in his manner, especially when he's accepting a poor oprhan apprentice from the workhouse and stares long and hard at the lad as if the latter's destined to comprise the next evening's dinner. There's a hilarious amount of plot crammed into an hour, most of it revolving around Todd, a London barber who murders people with the complicity of his baker next door neighbor, and steals their money to become wealthy himself. Nobody cackles malevolently and diabolically rubs his hands together quite like Slaughter, who gloriously lumbers around the proto-Victorian scenery like a bloated, demonic Derek Fowlds. I was still in a shitty mood when I started watching, but by the end was cackling right along with Slaughter and probably rubbing my hands together--I guess I was too wrapped up in the story to notice. Should I worry? Nah.

And then, as always, there were flicks from other sources...

Zardoz (1974): "The gun is good. The penis is evil." While an admirable summation of present-day Republican Party policies, it doesn't sound a very useful conceptual framework for a movie. The Thursday after I returned from Louisiana, I went to the Bluish Barn again to watch John Boorman's fabled conversation piece, the first time I'd done so on the relative big screen and among a group of people who I basically didn't know; it would certainly be interesting to see their reactions. These split evenly down the middle between hilarious astonishment that the movie was even made and sneaking awe at its sheer misbegotten grandeur. It's 2273, and the world's descended into an apocalypse of unspecified origin ("The Darkness"). Bands of orange-diapered "Exterminators" roam the countryside on horseback, killing and enslaving shabby hobo-like "Brutals," rounding up tribute and presenting it to their god "Zardoz," a giant stone Greek drama mask that flies leisurely through the sky to the strains of Beethoven's Seventh. The head Brutal, "Zed" (Sean Connery), hides himself in Zardoz' mouth and later emerges, shooting a mysterious figure and then finding himself in "The Vortex," a verdant, force-shielded country estate peopled by the icy, elegant and telepathic "Eternals," led by May (Sara Kestelman) and Consuella (Charlotte Rampling). May decides to keep Zed for "research," to Consuella's--initial--displeasure, and to the amusement of the ostentatiously droll Friend (John Alderton, who rather shockingly runs away with what there is to steal from the movie). Zed's forceful personality proves too hard to break as he begins to unravel the mystery of the Vortex... On so many levels, the movie is a ridiculous mess, a mishmash of hippie philosophy and Arthurian mystical elements, but it's compelling in a number of bizarre ways. For one thing, it's really awesome to think that this was bankrolled by Twentieth Century Fox only a couple of years before Star Wars; it may be insane, but it's certainly original. Seventies sci-fi movies made before Star Wars fascinate me in the same way as pre-Columbian voyages to America (more interesting in many ways than the actual widescale contact), and Zardoz is probably the most interesting example--with Silent Running (1971) being the best. Living in Ann Arbor, regarded both internally and externally (often wrongly, the myriad mistakes chronicled here and here) as some sort of progressive oasis in the traditionalist Michigan pastures, it's hard not to think of the dismissive, self-satisfied attitudes of the Eternals and make comparisons (of course, the Brutals don't hold sway over the country and state, trying to establish quasi-theocratic laws to ruin people's lives, so that comparison only goes so far). Finally, it really is one of the most visually astonishing movies ever made. Filmed in Ireland, among the gorgeous Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin (the same location Boorman would use six years later when making Excalibur), Zardoz benefits tremendously from Geoffrey Unsworth's lush yet gritty photography, giving it that unmistakable early Seventies feel I love so much in my movies. If there was ever a flick one should see at least once in their lives--regardless of actual quality--this is it.

Do The Right Thing (1989): It somehow took me nearly two decades to see this thing, and now that I have, I must agree (astonishingly enough) with Kim Basinger; it's pretty embarrassing that Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar instead (but, I mean, it's the Oscars--what can you do?). A day in the life of a neighborhood in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant community, Do The Right Thing's a wonderful symbiosis of style and substance; too often movies end up favoring one over the other. The sun bakes the streets and makes the buildings redder, Terence Blanchard's jazzy score provides an ideal soundtrack, and the jagged camera angles provide an offbeat rhythm to the story. Mookie (Spike Lee) works as a delivery man at Sal's Famous Pizzeria, owned by Sal Frangone (Danny Aiello), a commuter from Bensonhurst with two sons, asshole Pino (John Turturro) and likable but dopey Vito (Richard Edson). Mookie's got a son by neglected girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez), as well as friends in a multifarious collection of sidewalk denizens: Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the endearing elder statespair of Mr. Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee). Most of the film looks at the complicated relations between and among the different ethnic groups--blacks, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and the Korean grocery store owner (much more complex, in other words, than the simple black-white dichotomy preached by so many reviews at the time of release). Davis and Dee are wonderful in an extended shadow courtship that one senses has gone on for about two decades, and Aiello's unexpectedly compelling as a fish out of water whose vaguely colonial relationship with his customers is headed for trouble as he turns a blind eye (Turturro, as the hothead, blatantly racist son, actually sees more clearly than he on that score). Mookie doesn't want his boat rocked, as the black worker at an Italian business, but can't avoid the trouble coming, sparked by Buggin' Out's ire at Sal's Wall of Fame featuring only celebrities of Italian descent. The neighborhood's events get an alternate soundtrack and Greek chorus from the local DJ (Samuel L. Jackson in a fun performance that hints at the snarky coolness to come--and no, I still haven't seen Snakes On A Plane yet). I really enjoyed this--ethnic politics aside, Mookie's a wonderful heroic figure for downtrodden service workers, although it's both disturbing and hilarious that Mookie, working in 1989 New York, actually makes more money than I do in 2007 Ann Arbor. The tangled ethnic relationships lead to an explosive climax and bittersweet conclusion. I seem to remember reading a review by Stanley Crouch in which he took Lee to task for the "black-white" division in the movie, which didn't make much sense from my perspective; it's also interesting that the "riot" consists of the torching of one business (under rather murky circumstances at that), leading me to wonder why all those critics in 1989 were so fucking hysterical. True to the movie's rhythm, Lee doesn't close with the "riot," but lets life on the street work itself out, as it does in real life, with a memorable final scene between Mookie and Sal. This DVD, by the way, needs a rerelease with some serious extras.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:43 PM EST
Updated: 7 February 2007 2:47 PM EST
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3 February 2007
Printing Legends
Now Playing: Frank Sinatra--"I've Got You Under My Skin"
My grandfather passed away Sunday at the age of seventy-eight. He died, strangely enough, right as I was watching a BBC John Ford documentary (hosted by the late great Lindsay Anderson, of all people) that was on the DVD set of Young Mr. Lincoln. Grandpa was a huge Ford fan, and I think he would have liked to know that. It honestly didn't come as a great shock; he'd been in ill-health for some while with a variety of ailments. Of all my relatives, Grandpa Jack was probably the one I most enjoyed visiting out of the blue, which I occasionally did when I still lived in Baton Rouge. All the lame pop sociology about "blue states" and "red states" meant little when talking to my grandfather, much more conservative than myself (or his eldest son, or his youngest daughter, or his second-oldest grandson, or, as we recently discovered, one of his granddaughters) but probably a lot more liberal than the rest of the family. hanging out with he and Slater or Dad in his garage, amusingly described by Slater at the funeral as a "Fortress of Manliness," was something of an experience, with college football on TV, beer cold enough to disguise its identity of Coors or Michelob, a complex setup of weightlifting equipment, and what I'm fairly certain was just about every action, or adventure, or Western flick broadcast on TBS during the VCR's twenty-year reign over home video technology, stored and meticulously filed in some of my favorite wood-paneled drawers ever. At least one of those took with me. Those were priceless Saturday afternoons, and will continue forever in my memory. Thanks, Grandpa, and RIP.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:19 PM EST
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28 January 2007
Beat Them Gherkins
Now Playing: Kelly Jean Caldwell--"O Do Not Be Afraid!"
New blog name? Maybe. Or "The Gherkins Deal"; there's one that just screams epic scope.

I was mistaken for the member of a company the other day. It was the weirdest thing; La Jefa had sent me to take a delivery over to a downtown office building, a gorgeous old place that used to be the city's main organ factory, and there were still a few well-preserved specimens in the lobby (musical, not biological) that I examined on the way out (like I know shit about organs). The office looked like the popular image of one of those myriad dotcoms that went under in the late 90s, with goateed boy geniuses in toque hats knocking hackysacks around while chatting via mildly primitive cellphones to their brokers on NASDAQ. Or what have you. My customary attire on outdoor excursions is a wool hat, jacket, and scarf, the latter frequently worn over my mouth and nose, as the wind's been especially lacerating recently. Before taking the elevator back down, I put it all on and joined a couple of those "business guys," as Mike Nelson calls them.


I nodded and inserted myself between them as unobtrusively as possible.

"That is a fantastic-looking office," said one.

"Yeah, this place used to be an organ factory." The guy turns to me. "How long have you guys been there?" He obviously hasn't seen the chef pants, although I guess I should be relieved that he hasn't been looking there in the first place.

I raise my hands in a noncommittal shrug.

The other guy shakes his head. "That's not his company, man."

"That's not your company?" the guy asks me in apparent disbelief.

I shake my head. Mind you, it was a cool office.

"You don't work here?"

Again the shake.

"Who the hell are you?" asks the other guy, laughing. "Take off that mask!"

The elevator reaches ground level and we all have a good chuckle.

"It's cold out there," I whimper in partial explanation.

I hope I get sent there more often. I had to go there again that day, and was that time hassled by one of those homeless guys, the one who goes around screaming religious invective in a manner recalling Arsenio Hall's preacher character from Coming To America. La Jefa broke the news of my second traipse in sorrow-laden tones, not realizing that she was just throwing me in the briar patch.

Madisonfest: A Farewell Show (2007): Shawn Wernette's documentary portrait of this, which I was able to see in a rough cut Thursday evening at the Bluish Barn, a very cool little place north of Kerrytown, home to local musician Timothy Mephi and a number of friends. They're showing a different movie every Thursday, and the next few weeks' roster strongly tempts me to become a semi-regular patron. I'd had a number of enjoyable and increasingly intoxicated conversations with Shawn and Ryan Balderas about movies, and was thrilled to find out that he'd finally edited all the footage together and was showing it in Ann Arbor. I'm a little biased, but I think it's wonderful. Some of the performances onscreen maybe last a little long in comparison to others, but that's the only major criticism that sprang to mind. One of the big pleasures was to see performances I'd missed at the time (I tried my damnedest, but even I can't entirely make it through a nearly twelve-hour set of music without a break). Of those, Zach Curd was probably the most impressive, with one foot in folk and another in the kind of quasi-cabaret stuff that worked such wonders for Bowie around the time of Hunky Dory. There were also priceless bits of performances I'd seen but hadn't wholly appreciated--viz. Vince and Matt's facial expressions during the Dabenport set. Glorious. I'd actually expected it to be a straightforward portrayal of the music, and so I was very pleased to find a timely and well-placed selection of interviews in between performances and leading into them, with Ryan, Brandon, Fred Thomas, and Steven from Canada, all of whom put their own contributions into the context of the local music scene, and particularly the opportunities Ann Arbor allows folk musicians, in contrast to garage rock's longtime predominance in Detroit. Brandon waxes particularly eloquent over Great Lakes Myth Society and how they have to deal with the potential trivialization of their subject matter in non-Michigander eyes by artists like Sufjan Stevens. I watched it with an audience that had an often distractingly--but in the end bracingly--critical attitude towards the performances. I won't mention the specific performer, but she was playing with a poor glockenspielerin who got a merciless (though somewhat justified, in my mind) ragging from the peanut gallery in back. "The glockenspiel player doesn't give a fuck!" "She's wearing business casual!!" (the latter hissed in a manner others might reserve for... I don't know, live infant evisceration or something). The film led, as the show did in real life, to Chris Bathgate's supremely evocative performance of "We Die," the final song ever played at the Madison House. The credits played, alongside Adam's photos, to Saturday Looks Good To Me's "When You Got To New York." It's weirdly appropriate in two ways--the last song on the most recent record of probably the best-known Ann Arbor band (2004's Every Night), and a reference to Brandon's present life in Brooklyn. Full disclosure: I'm thanked in the credits; I still have little idea why.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006): A genuine Grimm-style fairy tale modernized (well, 1940s, anyway) and fully realized. Even the interminable commercials through which one must helplessly sit at Showcase Cinemas in Ypsilanti found redemption through the movie's greatness. It was strange, too, as it took me half the movie to warm to it (when I did, though, I did with a vengeance). Many disparate themes come together towards the end in a rewarding and in one case very gutsy manner. Guillermo del Toro's work has somewhat eluded me in the past; I enjoyed Cronos but didn't like The Devil's Backbone as much as I thought I would (probably a case of thinking it was going to be the most awesome movie ever made from the reviews--that's screwed me over more than once). Young Ofelia (the amazing Ivana Baquero) finds herself and her invalid mother saddled with a wicked stepfather who also happens to be a captain in Franco's army. It's 1944 and though the Spanish Civil War has been over for half a decade, there are still isolated pockets of resistance in the northern mountains (the dialogue hints at Aragon). Ofelia quickly discovers the nearby woods to be haunted by ancient spirits, who assign her a quest that will take her away from her wretched mortal existence. After a rocky start, del Toro ably contrasts Ofelia's "fantasy" world with the oppression and degradation of the "real" one, all the while subtly (and sometimes not so much) hinting at similarities between the two. As in all the best horror movies, themes of sacrifice surface in a way that recall some of the best specimens of the genre. All that takes place against a truly gorgeous physical backdrop. The verdant, mountainous countryside is fine enough, but the fantasy scenes make for delicious icing on the cake; the "banqueting hall" is one of the most evocative and well-rendered sets I've ever seen in a movie, period. Sergi Lopez makes a superb villain as the stepfather; the most horrific scenes in the movie are the ones in which he tortures suspects (or, more precisely, is about to torture them). Now I'll have a movie to root for at the Oscars!

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): In his excellent essay "Hero in Waiting" that accompanies the DVD, film scholar Geoffrey O'Brien makes a case that John Ford's biographical masterpiece was something of an American answer to totalitarian propaganda titans like Triumph of the Will and Alexander Nevsky (and wouldn't you know it, Sergei Eisenstein's 1945 essay "Mr. Lincoln by Mr. Ford" appears right after O'Brien's). There's a definite ambivalence towards "the American way" in this one; as O'Brien observes, Lincoln's relations with the Springfield townspeople epitomize the constant tug-o-war between individual and society. An ostensible account of Lincoln's early Illinois legal career in the 1830s, Young Mr. Lincoln makes its subject (Henry Fonda, whose garish false nose one forgets after about five minutes) human while making the frequent historical foreshadows part of that humanity, instead of turning the man into a statue (which does happen, quite literally, but only at the very end of the movie). There's a dominating plot concerning Lincoln's defense of a pair of brothers accused of murder, but it's the little touches that shine through for me, particularly the appearances of a hilariously smug Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone)--every time there's a shot of his face while Lincoln's speaking (particularly in medium or long shots), you can just tell he's thinking "hick moron!!!" Along with that comes a plethora of small-town Americana: covered wagons, state fairs, lynch mobs, pie-eating contests, parades... the kind of deceptive and occasionally corny wholesomeness that Ford's genius turns to high drama, and a perfect stage for his subject. Lincoln, the most fascinating of Americans, needed no such transformation, but Ford renders him an American cinema hero for the ages.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:50 PM EST
Updated: 28 January 2007 4:10 PM EST
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26 January 2007
Loving Plans, Coming Together
Now Playing: The Stone Roses--"Standing Here"
WARNING: The following post contains mature subject matter. If you can call it that.

This past week saw the thirty-fourth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a landmark achievement in women's--and consequently human--rights in this country. Several blogs and websites encouraged pro-choice bloggers to post on why they're pro-choice. I'm not a woman, but I am human at the very least, and have participated in an active volunteer basis for three years in promoting reproductive rights, and so I should probably say something.

First off, dropping the bomb, I voted for Ralph Nader in the presidential election of 2000, and have heartily repented ever since then (actually more since he refused to endorse Wellstone for the Minnesota Senate race two years later, but you know what I mean). I still have my doubts as to whether he was the proximate cause of Bush's "victory" on historical accuracy grounds, but I'm just as culpable regardless because he could have been. I've considered myself pro-choice ever since I was aware of the reproductive rights struggle, and once took part in a counter-demonstration outside the Delta Women's Clinic in Baton Rouge when Operation Rescue blew through town in the early 90s. I'm hazy these days on the details, but I believe the right to abortion in Louisiana was in one of its periodical legal limbos, with various court decisions challenging and counter-challenging, that opened a window for abortions to be performed despite questionable legality. I think. In any case, I ended up outside said clinic with a couple of friend and a bunch of other counter-demonstrators--some local and some out-of-state--facing a group of Randall Terry's slavering little disciples. I vividly remember one fellow carrying a cross with a papier-mache bleeding Jesus or some such (how's that for a band name?), looking like he was about to speak in tongues, and reminding me of nothing less than a medieval flagellant. In 1992.

Why mention the Nader thing? When the election came around, I associated Gore rather too closely with Clinton (and therefore with an overly precipitate welfare reform, the ruinous and counterproductive
"drug war" at home and abroad, etc.). What essentially happened is that I took abortion rights (and, as it turned out, a great deal else) for granted. Some could plausibly argue that I oculd afford to do so due to my gender and therefore privileged status in American society and culture.* In any event, I harbored a pretty impressive (if I do say so myself) stockpile of guilt over the election, and the abortion thing figured heavily in it.

When I moved to Ann Arbor, I quickly became depressed over my job and how little the city measured up to my initial expectations, and figured a good way to get out of it was to volunteer at... something. I got on an internet volunteer exchange and noticed that the local Planned Parenthood chapter was looking for volunteers. It sounded interesting, and so I got in contact with my now good friend Jessica, the volunteer coordinator. Ann Arbor is in many ways a deceptively liberal town, and so I thought there might be some friction there--I pictured myself getting hassled by wackos or something, occasionally laughing at some fundamentalist preacher holding up a bloody fetus poster outside the offices and asking him if he'd ever seen Poltergeist 2. I began by putting together patient billing statements (a lot of those), other administrative work, and eventually moved to manning booths at popular local events like Art Fair and OutFest. I branched out, through the good offices of Planned Parenthood staffer Meredith, to other volunteer stuff like the WRAP library project. Wednesday I actually got to go to a lunch and was named one of two Volunteers of the Year for 2005. It's been a lot of fun and I hope to continue doing my best at it for as long as I'm here.

So why pro-choice, then? For one thing, the arguments have perennially seemed miles more valid. Birth's always meant "birth" to me; call me old-fashioned. The right-wing caricature of irresponsible whores getting abortions just for the hell of it has no real bssis in fact, and it's primarily a result of sexual asault, lack of birth control aids, or lack of sex education. One effect of working as a volunteer has been to impress on me what an excellent job its staff does at trying to improve women's and men's access to the information they need to lead healthy sex lives and reduce the number of abortions, and how these different issues are interlinked. It's also one of the few issues (gay marriage being another) where the desires of the individual dovetail precisely with the needs of society. On several social issues, like gun ownership and the death penalty, I'm somewhat torn between "liberal" and "conservative" arguments--not so with these. Also, though it seems a little negative, it's instructive to judge the pro-choice cause by its enemies, mostly older men who will never have to worry about the effects of an abortion or the lack of birth control.** What they--and for the last six years the government--have been aiming at is the elimination of the right to abortion, birth control, and sex education (and fellas, if moral arguments don't move you, to paraphrase--maybe quote, I don't remember, Dan Savage--we're next--don't think they'll stop at masturbation's edge). It's effectively the elimination of women's ability to govern their own lives. They're fellow citizens and that ability should belong to every one of us. So there are my reasons.

*I never forget it these days, no matter how down and out I feel. One thing that occasionally dredges up guilt is the way in which I make myself feel better through the misery of others. Whenever my boss becomes too annoying for words, or I realize I can't go out for two weeks, I just tell myself "at least you're not a starving child in Darfur" (or, for that matter, a woman in any number of states who needs an abortion--or someone in Falluja, etc.). I feel good, then I feel bad, and then my head hurts and I tell myself a qualified "life's too short."

**An attitude expressing itself in a particularly grotesque way through the ludicrously unfair practice in many corporations of making Viagra available through health insurance but not birth control. I couldn't have made up that shit while drunk (and I've probably tried).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:29 AM EST
Updated: 26 January 2007 9:31 AM EST
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24 January 2007
Carpet of Leeks
Now Playing: Adrian Belew--"Big Blue Sun"
I work, as some of you may have gleaned, in a restaurant in the United States. As such, I see a truly staggering amount of food wasted every day. People are actually better about cleaning their plates in my present workplace than they were at my old job at the high-end Italian place in Akron, where they were a lot more profligate with the kitchen's bounty. One of the factors behind my recent decision to actively pursue a culinary career has been to try and reverse, in however insignificant a fashion, this appalling habit. There's more than one way to go down with a ship. While some might protest, in the manner of one of Dickens' more celebrated characters, that the state of things helps to curb the excess population, their reasoning doesn't quite face up to how many more resources the relatively few well-to-do consume in contrast to the many impoverished.

This isn't a fresh discovery on my part--even while watching the egregious Nickelodeon game show Double Dare (in middle school, I think--such an irresponsible show could only have come about during or after Reagan), where groups of screeching preteens slid along waves of chocolate or whipped cream, I couldn't help thinking "I know all those sweets are horrible for you (not that it'll stop me from eating their ilk) but couldn't something more constructive be done with them?" My present quasi-poverty has made me more personally knowledgeable as to the benefits of food conservation, but even my ill-fated attempt to use egg whites in frying potatoes (I used the yolks to make homemade mayonnaise and didn't know what else to do with the remainder) wasn't enough to deter me from new endeavors in this cause. So I went for Food Gatherers, which I'd been meaning to do for a while.

Food Gatherers is a local organization that takes food from donors, mostly restaurants and grocery stores with product they can't or won't use, and then distributes it to those in need. These latter are a variety of local organizations including the Delonis Community Center Kitchen, where I made a commitment to volunteer for a couple of hours the third Saturday of every month. The kitchen is located in the downtown shelter building, which has a wide array of services for the hard-luck and homeless. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I wanted to use my experience to some good purpose. I'd been able to do so once before, at a Planned Parenthood reception in the house of a wealthy patron, where I was able to use my bussing skills (yes, bussing skills) to smooth things along. This gig promised to be a little more substantial.

I arrived at the kitchen in the wake of a church group who apparently do this every Saturday. Paula, the kitchen manager, promptly assigned us all duties and told us we'd have our orientation after we'd finished. This was actually refreshing, as I got to skip the awkward "sitting around, being the new guy" thing (although it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be; I don't picture people in their underwear--well, some less than others--so much as in Eddie Murphy-style Gumby outfits), and get straight to work. Paula had me unloading the delivery truck, making coffee (odd as I usually don't like it), and then teaming up with John, an avuncular gent in his sixties, to make salads.

The whole ethos of the kitchen is to use what you have. This should hold true of any kitchen, but it's a welcome escape from the tyranny of set recipes and it helped that Paula told us to use our own judgment. Her only contribution was to add corn to the salads, which I'd never have considered, but apparently people seem to like it. I got the tossing into an assembly-line format, with John chopping carrots and I parsley (and ripping romaine leaves to make them more edible for people with severe dental problems) and then back again. It was great fun and I was happy to be doing something useful with my abilities. Afterwards, Paula gave us the orientation session, which amounted to a brief history of the organization and how it worked. I could really get used to the kitchen as a monthly deal; their mission lies in exactly the direction in which I want to fashion my own life.

That night, I made vichysoisse.


3 tsp butter
8 leeks
3 medium potatoes
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 tsp pepper
1 cup cream
milk or water to thin

Melt butter in pot. Clean and chop leeks, and add to pot. Stir while cooking for 20 mins. on low heat. Peel, slice, and stir in potatoes, then add stock. Bring to boil and then simmer until potatoes soften, about 30 mins. Puree until smooth. Season with salt to taste and pepper. Add cream. Thin with water and milk if necessary, then serve hot or cold.

This was my first cream-based homemade soup. Those are fraught with danger at my workplace, as our stovetop has two settings--"scald" and "off"--and easily burn. This happens a lot less nowadays, but you never know. I won't lie--vichysoisse was fun to make. I'd already eaten, so there was little rush. Leeks are interesting things--sweeter and milder than onions, and they have an equally lovely smell while cooking, only different. I tried a bit of the chopped raw, and it went down so much better than raw onions; I can definitely see how they would be excellent on salads. Softening and sauteing in the butter, they're a joy, and they reduce really fast--it was like watching a jungle in my soup pot transform into a marsh. I was even able to play with the leeks' texture a little, chopping them into waves and then smoothing them into a carpet.

I'd brought down my stereo to listen to CBC Radio 3--one of the fun things about cooking for me is the music. They did some Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Tom Waits (as well as a lot of obscure Canadian bands, which is really the appeal for me), and then a report from one of the Arcade Fire's "secret shows" from Montreal. I tried to dispel the leeks' aroma, which, while very pleasant, was close to suffocating, and remembering we had a blower atop the oven, I also realized that we had a small kitchen light much dimmer and softer than the main (and very harsh) ceiling light. Turning off the main, I turned on the oven light, and then kitchen was transformed. I was alone in the dim glow, snow all around the house and visible through the window, and stirring a pot. I felt like a wtich, maybe Sleeping Beauty's spurned, malefic would-be godmother plotting mischief aplenty. I doubt she was listening to Wolf Parade (maybe a wolf parade), but then I guess these comparisons only go so far. After stirring in the potatoes (and using the spare simmering time to bake off two spare cod fillets I had in the fridge), I found that the half hour had rendered the soup so soft and tender that I saw little reason to puree anything. Potage parmentier (vichysoisse without the cream) may be one of the basic French soups, but it was my kitchen, dammit. After all, this is presumably how they did it before food processors, and the peasants never needed any of those to go on jacquerie (though invented by a French chef around the turn of the last century, the soup's potato-leek base makes it great peasant food). I added the cream, gave it a stir, and then some milk and just a little water. The soups I make at work are good, but we got panned (if one can call it that) in the local paper (if one can call it that) for our soups being more like stews, velvety (our server's favorite description) and thick. I prefer it thus, but I know many like their soups thin, fluid and reedy (the last makes no sense, but it goes well with the other two in prose, I think), so I tried to overdo it with the water (it didn't "help"). I poured a small bowl, and stuck the rest in the fridge. It was great--stracciatella was okay, but this was so much better. The leeks and cream made it sweet while just a little bit spicy and mysterious.

I felt very satisfied with the day.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:39 AM EST
Updated: 24 January 2007 10:30 AM EST
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