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Washtenaw Flaneurade
29 November 2007
Tryptophanisme
Now Playing: Carla Thomas--"(Your Love Is A) Life Saver"

Thanksgiving comes and goes again, and I age another year. A friend of mine commented elsewhere that home feels less and less like it every time he goes back, and I've found the same to be the case with me. Previously, I might have found it tragic, but this year I found a weird sort of comfort. I also remembered how much I hated planes. Love airports, hate planes. I found my family well, a little more dispersed this year than usual (half Louisiana Catholic, half Mississippi Protestant) but well all the same. I had a great conversation with my politically polar opposite grandfather (which memorably began with him asking if I was "on the relief"), probably walked too much (no, not really), and spent most of Friday (during which everyone else watched football, with LSU losing to Arkansas) on YouTube.

I decided to celebrate my birthday this year and had planned on getting people to come to Leopold Brothers' for a few drinks and maybe a board game or two. On learning that Tim Monger would be playing there that night, backed by Scott DeRoche and John Fossum, I became more excited, and then found that they'd all be opening for the Silent Years and the New Green. I got there, found a few friends, hung out, met more, and then the music started. Before I continue, I should say that it was the best birthday I've had in a good long while, possibly a decade. All I wanted to do was enjoy myself, hang out with friends and I think I succeeded admirably. As for the music... Tim's set was excellent; I think his generally sweet, gentle songs actually benefit from having a relatively hard-rocknig backup. The contrast worked wonders. I'd heard the Silent Years before, and remember not being all that enthused about them, and found my opinions reinforced. I'd never heard the New Green (including stalwarts like Jim Roll) before, and wished I could have stayed longer to do so. I got to hear their CD Easily Made, Easily Broken later, and it was decent enough alt-country-pop, although I suspect I'm ready for a new dominant local music paradigm. At any rate, "Mature Alcoholic" and "The Sanguine" were particuarly good. By their set, though, I and a couple of other people were wearying of the unusually packed scene at Leopold's.  The huge stage with the lighting, cavernous ceilings, and beer-hall atmosphere made it seem like a distinctly unsavory political rally. It was a little hard to relax and converse, so a few of us--myself, Sara, Margot, Josh, and later Eric--wound up at the Old Town later for a wonderful round of conversations, during which I finally realized how hard it must be sometimes to follow me when I'm talking about movies. Thanks for everything, guys.

Moliere (2007): I like Moliere, and as this was only going to be at the Michigan for a couple of days, I decided on a whim to catch it that next night. It opens alarmingly, with a soft light panning across sumptuously arranged linens that promise the sort of middle-brow historical spectacle that makes going to period flicks these days such a perilous chore (I heard Marie Antoinette was crap, but I still want to see it just because it tried to shake up the formula a little, the same way I still think A Knight's Tale did so successfully). The plot itself has been likened to Shakespeare in Love, and it's easy to see why, as it uses a romantic complication from Moliere's past to explain most of his masterpieces, like Tartuffe and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Moliere (Romain Duris) gets busted out of debtor's prison by Jourdain, a dweeby bourgeois with more money than sense (the excellent Fabrice Luchini, a frequent mainstay of Eric Rohmer flicks back in the day, particularly 1978's bewildering yet engrossing Arthurian tableau Perceval) who wants the playwright to tutor him in the theatrical arts, so he can seduce a notoriously fickle salonniere (Ludivine Sagnier). Jourdain's wife (Laura Morante) realizes what's going on and falls in love with Moliere, with tragicomic, yep Shakespeare in Love-like consequences. It's all frothy fun, but with some nifty in-jokes and serious artistic undertones. One might even detect a dig at the Oscars in Moliere's initial hidebound assumption that the only quality theatre is drama. Even with all that, the movie's stolen by none other than Edouard Baer, Audrey Tautou's mopey boyfriend in God Is Great And I'm Not (2002), as a sleazy, impoverished aristocrat with an eye toward nabbing his business-minded son a prosperous match. The scene where he tries to deny that one of his ancestors was a merchant is the movie's comic highlight.

No Country For Old Men (2007): As far as I could tell early Tuesday, the Coen Brothers had made exactly two undeniably good movies: Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996). I have yet to see Raising Arizona (1987), but I'm afraid I have to side with the critics who condemn their oeuvre in general as a constant barrage of film-school artifice. You'll find great individual moments and excellent performances by actors and actresses (one thinks of Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and John Turturro and John Goodman in pretty much all of them), but they never really seem to hang together as movies for me. It's just another casualty in the irony overdose that may yet do for narrative cinema and literature as art forms. Fortunately, the Coens seem to recognize this themselves (or at least have temporarily exhausted their reserves of gratuitous snark) and do themselves proud with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, which hardly ever feels like a Coen Brothers movie. A gripping thriller and a grim, downbeat essay on the nature of fate, No Country turns the Texas-Mexico border into a blasted wasteland, almost a preparation for the end, as taciturn Vietnam vet Llewellyn Moss (the perennially underrated Josh Brolin) and charismatically psycho hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) chase each other over some missing drug money in an occasionally deceptive game of cat-and-mouse, with washed-up sheriff Edward Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as a resignedly impotent spectator. The Coens pull out all the stops with a fantastic supporting cast, some of who seem to have been pulled out by the roots from the surrounding soil (I don't think I've seen Tess Harper in anything since high school). Kelly McDonald hardly seems Scots at all as Moss' wife. Woody Harrelson pops up as a shady character with his own reasons for helping Moss, and a couple of my favorite American TV actors of the past decade make appearances: Stephen Root, NewsRadio's Jimmy James, as a crooked sort employing Harrelson, and Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt (good as Jack McCall, Wild Bill Hickok's assassin, but genuinely great as the enigmatic, sinister geologist Francis Wolcott) as Jones' goofy deputy with a stereotypically silly name. Barry Corbin, as Jones' grizzled old adviser, looks like he's actually been exhumed, and seems to provide the philosophical lesson to which the movie builds. As with the earlier Coen stuff, there's plenty of quirkiness, but this time it's effectively balanced out by a truly horrific shadow hanging over the action, even more horrific for being so prosaic and inevitable. It all made me feel that what was wrong witht he earlier movies was a sense of calibration. Hopefully the Coens will see this, as I do, as a welcome new direction, because I think they'd be really terrific making good movies that genuinely mean something.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 6:02 PM EST
Updated: 29 November 2007 6:31 PM EST
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19 November 2007
Why Should They Kill Me, When Everyone Likes Me So Much?
Now Playing: Roxy Music--"The Bob (Medley)"

Today I received one of those Cialis and Viagra emails on yahoo from the magnificently monickered Petronella Bellamy (petrorestlamyl@hotmail.com) --it's too bad that it's probably not her real name--which directed me to http://www.thegoodcoop.com. I clicked on neither location, as you can probably imagine, but did notice a rather unusual email signature (if such it was)...

"had ridden up. Don't you understand, your excellency, my dear sir, that you must not defile through narrow officer you would set a good example, yet here you are without your boots! The alarm will be sounded and Here it is! thought he, seizing the staff of the standard and hearing with pleasure the whistle of bullets mantilla, Natasha, shivering in the fresh air, went out into the deserted streets lit by the clear light of dawn."

It smells a lot like War and Peace to me, the scene where Nikolai Rostov's having that rude awakening while watching his army get its clock cleaned at Austerlitz. "Natasha" might also suggest so. But then there's "mantilla," which suggests Spain? The Peninsular War? It's definitely got a Napoleonic feel, and I'm guessing was cobbled together from several different bits and pieces. But why? Why, Petronella, why??? And so on and so forth.

It's mildly embarrassing that I'll probably wind up thinking about this on my deathbed (if I have one).


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:21 PM EST
Updated: 19 November 2007 1:22 PM EST
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15 November 2007
Fasten Your Piehole With Fetters Of Brass
Now Playing: Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky--"Francesca da Rimini"

For the longest time, I've been fascinated by the Basques, the non-Indo-European people living among the western Pyrenees, in the border region between France and Spain. They've lived in Europe longer than anyone else and their language is pretty nigh unclassifiable. The Basque country, or Euskal Herria in Euskadi, ties with Wales as the part of Europe I most want to visit (as opposed to cities, where London and Rome still hold preeminence). I was scarcely deterred by watching a strange BBC documentary from the mid-50s hosted by Orson Welles. Welles, of course, is one of my heroes, and this period, even with Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil, is supposed to be a low point in his career. You wouldn't be able to tell, though, as he swans about the mountains doing whatever he damn well pleases and gets paid for it into the bargain (one would imagine, anyway). It's a treat watching people turn to drink in their interviews with him just to get a word in edgewise.* Back to the Basques, their food is held by many critics to be the height of Spanish cuisine. Much of it involves seafood, as the Basques have been making a living off the Atlantic for centuries and probably knew about America before Columbus (likely from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, one of the world's great historic fishing grounds). There's one recipe in particular that I've long been meaning to try.

Marmitako (Tuna and Potato Stew)

1/2 cup olive oil, 2 large onions, sliced or chopped, 4 medium Anaheim chiles, seeded and thinly sliced, 2 bay leaves, 8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.

Warm olive oil in stockpot over high heat. Add onions, chiles, bay leaves and garlic, and saute for 10 mins.

2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered, 1 cup dry white wine, 3 cups veggie stock, 6-8 saffron threads.

Add potatoes, stock, wine and saffron. Bring to boil, cover and reduce heat to minimum.

1 tbsp kosher salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, 1 mild dried chile pepper.

Add salt, pepper, and dried chile; cook until potatoes are tender (approx. 15 mins.).

2 tsp olive oil, 2 lbs. yellowfin tuna fillets, cut into 1 1/2 in. cubes, 3 tbsp chopped parsley.

Warm remaining 2 tsp olive oil in large saute pan over high heat. Add tuna and saute for 2 mins. until lightly browned. Transfer tuna to stockpot with potatoes; continue to cook about 8-10 mins. Stir only occasionally on account of fish. Season with salt and pepper to taste and discard bay leaves.

Yes, "simple," hearty "fisherman's stew," which appears to be the Basque equivalent of bouillabasse. To me, it seemed the height of gourmet dining. So many of these recipes looked delicious (I got this one from Gerald and Cameron Hirigoyen's The Basque Kitchen), but I wanted a soup to try, and this one turned out fantastic, my favorite yet. I had to make a few subsitutions; I probably could have bought saffron threads from Whole Foods, but the transportation issues didn't seem worth it. Having a few green peppers on hand, I switched those for the Anaheims and compensated with a couple of jalapenos. I used dried parsley (a lot less, as dried herbs are usually stronger than fresh) and found I had no veggie stock, so I decided to use one cup chicken stock and two cups water, just to make sure it didn't overpower the flavor. I probably should have processed the chili pepper (it was an ancho; I didn't want it too strong and they didn't have any guajillos besides), but wound up simply doing a julienne and dumping it in there; I don't think it was that big of a deal. Browning the tuna was a surprisingly sensual experience. I love seafood, and love cooking it almost as much. Add to that the piquant taste of the peppers and spices, and the extra tang of the wine (I'm not sure they had sauvignon blanc in mind, but that was all I had, so there), and you have a very delicious soup. I was pretty damn proud of myself, to be honest.

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999): When I was in high school, I read Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). I wasn't supposed to do so, as it had nothing to do with any of my classes, but you know how it is (I got a 4.0 anyway). I came away mighty impressed with the mix of theoretical anmalysis and direct reportage that Faludi brought to her examination of the hissyfit a lot of guys threw around that time at the alleged despotism of "feminazis" and their ilk. She was particularly good on the media, eviscerating thirtysomething's not-so-subtle tumescence for the imaginary fifties and looking at the bizarre reactions Roseanne (while living on Spring Street a few years ago, I caught up on a few reruns and don't think I'd ever realized how good it was) provoked for its honest and feminist portrayal of American working-class life. I'd been meaning to read Stiffed for a while and had just never gotten around to it. Faludi's recent The Terror Dream, about the official manipulation of masculinity and popular culture since 9/11, has just come out, and the reminder of her existence spurred me to get in gear and read Stiffed (among other things, so I could read The Terror Dream, as they seem to comprise a trilogy of sorts). One of the reasons I enjoy reading, say, Bitch magazine is that it demonstrates feminism to be a universal; if, as the bumper sticker says, "women are people," then it follows that men are people, too, something just as easily ignored in patriarchal culture. Faludi looks at how the alleged winners are just as deprived under the existing system, one that prizes winning above all and an almost sociopathic veneration for the individual, drawing on a host of cases from American cultural and economic life during the post-Vietnam era. Her core thesis--that a brief progressive moment of collective identity in the immediate post-World War II era was usurped by a triumphalist imperialism that not only got the country into Vietnam but also the problems of its aftermath--I've found echoed in other works, from Gore Vidal's essays to Fred Inglis' impassioned, Anglocentric history of the Cold War, The Cruel Peace (1992). Faludi focuses primarily on the changing nature of fatherhood, and how many men felt they had to live up to paternal examples that simply didn't exist in real life. Most of her stories come from that new heartland, Southern California, many in turn revolving around the McDonnell-Douglas defense industrial complex. Her most gripping tale comes from Michael Bernhardt, the Vietnam veteran who, with fellow vet Ron Ridenhour, blew the whistle on My Lai. On the cultural front, she has a very illuminating series of discussions with Sylvester Stallone, both on the mythmaking nature of the Rambo movies and his own status as a male role model of sorts, and undertakes a fascinating exploration of how the porn industry devalues men as well as women. The latter section demonstrates why I enjoy Faludi so much as a writer, probably because her background's in journalism and not academia. She can engage in a deep, scholarly "interrogation" of the fin-de-siecle male malaise and then provide this image:

A few weeks after the [porno] incident, [Ron Jeremy] invited me to his apartment to watch a videotape of a Beavis and Butt-head segment in which they sniggered endlessly about Jeremy's paunch. "Isn't this great?" Jeremy crowed, as he sat on the floor before his wide-screen TV, devouring an entire platter of bagels, lox, and cream cheese, which was supposed to be brunch for three. "I don't care what they say about me," Jeremy said cheerfully, as he snaked his tongue along the empty bottom of the deli cream-cheese container, "as long as they spell my name right." (546)**

*If you ever run across it, though, it's great fun, both entertaining and fascinating (mostly entertaining) as he jovially bullies the wan young son of an expatriate American food writer, smokes a cigar while speaking on-camera during a pelota match (Basque stickball, commonly known as jai-alai), and basically turns into a five-year-old whenever anyone shoots off fireworks.

**Probably just as well, then.

 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 15 November 2007 2:12 PM EST
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6 November 2007
Oh Well, I Guess I Must Have Fumbled; I Suppose That's Just The Way The Cookie Crumbles
Now Playing: The Pipettes--"Dirty Mind"

The pleasant situation in my life, to which I alluded a couple of weeks ago, no longer exists. To be sure, it was an ephemeral thing from the start, but no less sweet in the duration or painful at the end (with nobody, really, to blame, which has its own set of blessings and curses) as a result. While I consider my present ache inevitable, if silly, I regret nothing, wish her the best and am glad to count her my friend regardless.

Still, as one might imagine, the weekend was shit (even if some sort of reverse tension meant I had an unexpectedly mellow time at work--not enough energy to be pissed off, perhaps), and I've had to troll around for things to cheer me up.

Scream and Scream Again (1969): One of only a couple of films to feature the three horror icons of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing at once, Gordon Hessler's wacko masterpiece for AIP (if you ask me) is marvelously (as always) reviewed here and also by yours truly for Darrell Buxton's upcoming anthology of 1960s British horror reviews.

Lindisfarne--"No Time To Lose": I don't remember where I first heard of Lindisfarne, a folk-rock band from the north of England (Newcastle to be exact, hence the name), but I fund their 1971 album Fog On The Tyne at poor old Schoolkids' in Exile shortly before it departed this world and decided to give it a go (as I did with Pentangle's 1970 Cruel Sister, which is good but not nearly as much as Fog On The Tyne). Their big hit was the title song, but my personal favorite came at the end of the CD bonus tracks. With a muffled, jokey intro, a cheeky mandolin whisks into gear a militantly peppy and enchanting little song, all about the joys of getting out into the country and washing out your cares with pumice (not necessarily pumice, but there's a hard edge to the song that gives me that impression). It's especially good for those undeniably nice days that yet seem a little too brisk and overcast, with a hint of rain coming your way, and those are the very best days of all.

Sergei Prokofiev--"Kije's Funeral" from the Lieutenant Kije Suite: Kije had a can't-miss premise, from the novel by Yuri Tynyanov. A bureaucratic error in military dispatches to the Czar's court results in the creation of a fictional hero by terrified pen-pushers, one whose exploits become more imaginative and unbelievable as the snowball of mendacity gains momentum. The piece is probably best known for the rousing "Troika," the theme music to Woody Allen's 1975 classic Love and Death, but I love the last bit, where Kije's jaunty introduction at the beginning plays essentially side by side with the mournful "Love Song," illustrating both the impossibility of Kije's existence and the fundamental ambiguity of every single life, filled as they are with joys and sorrows. Any time things seem too out of hand either way, "Kije's Funeral" will do.

Barry Lyndon (1975): The Michigan Theater showed this as part of its ongoing Kubrick series; I tried to get a few people to go see this, but with little success. A friend of mine met me for coffee beforehand, which was nice, as I hadn't really had a good talk with her in a while. I was also terribly pleased to run into the good John Fossum during the intermission, and as always had a good chat with him about movies and music (he's backing Tim Monger at Leopold Brothers' on the 24th, happily the same day I was going to do something for my birthday at that very location). Kubrick isn't exactly one of my passions; while I love many of his movies, the authoritarian, control-freak way in which he puts them together so violently clashes with my own worldview that I'm surprised I can watch them at all. Fortunately, he's perfectly matched with Barry Lyndon. I'd seen it before on video, but never in a theater, which concerned me a little going in, but it was really the perfect thing for me to watch in my present mood. William Thackeray was an eighteenth-century guy--wry, cynical, and knowing--in an early Victorian literary world that prized youth, romance and sentimental cant above all things. In much the same way as he would Vanity Fair a few years later, he presented his 1844 work, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, about an Irish rascal trying to make it in the Georgian English aristocracy through a variety of picaresque adventures, as a "novel without a hero" (I think; it fits, anyway). Kubrick's three-hour film isn't so much one without a hero as it is one with a hero who's also a feckless, self-destructive goon, almost a more conscientious, better-heeled equivalent of Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971). He goes through most of the movie acting like a complete and utter douche, commits one honorable action towards the end, and as a result loses pretty much everything. I ragged on Ryan O'Neal in the message I sent to people describing the movie, but he's actually well-cast in the way I described. What he does with his casting, though, one must judge for oneself. Moments in the first half of the movie when he has to cry are almost criminally hilarious. The supporting cast is to die for, honors going to the great Leonard Rossiter as Captain Quin, Patrick Magee as the stylish Chevalier, and the ever-swish Murray Melvin as the Reverend Runt. Its visual splendor's become cinematic legend, as Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott patterned the look after painters of the period like Watteau and Gainsborough, probably the main reason I wanted to see it on the big screen (as with Kubrick's 2001, it makes so much more sense after seeing it that way). The music matches the visuals, Handel's grim Sarabande as the main theme and Schubert's Piano Trio anachronistically repeated throughout the movie, with traditional Irish music by the early Chieftains thrown in towards the beginning. In happier times, Kubrick's intensely cynical take on life--particularly love and desire--can seem cartoonishly corrosive, but at moments like these, it can feel so right.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:10 PM EST
Updated: 6 November 2007 2:32 PM EST
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4 November 2007
When You're Walter Gotell, Life's Never Easy
Now Playing: The Pretty Things--"Buzz the Jerk"

Blerg

A commentary on the last few days (with apologies and thanks to Tina Fey).

It's already getting better, what with the movies and the soups and all, but I just wanted a memento for posterity. The weather fits, at least.

Off to cut up tuna!


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:05 PM EDT
Updated: 12 November 2007 3:56 PM EST
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25 October 2007
Look Out, Honey, 'Cause I'm Using Technology
Now Playing: Carl Maria von Weber--"Overture" to "Der Freischutz"

"The alchemist says your HMO was destroyed in a goblin attack."

I apparently need to learn more about World of Warcraft so I can mock it more accurately.

So barely a day after I write the first paragraph of the previous entry, I have my own personal Larry Craig moment at work. I find Craig a terribly amusing figure--these secretly sybaritic gay-bashers usually are, and Craig's a little more brazen than most. It helps that he's a colossal embarrassment to people who've done their level best to ruin the country for the past seven years. I'd never heard anything about the cult of bathroom toetapping (I guess I move in the wrong circles), but such moved through my mind as I did something a couple of days ago that every one of the people reading this has done--on the toilet. Fluffy (who I wanted to have certified at least five times today, God help me) installed new locks on the bathrooms (bathroom locks are good things to have in a public place, I'm sure we'll all agree) and very nice they looked, too. So I... performed my ablutions in a fair amount of confidence I wouldn't be disturbed. No sooner had I finished than I heard a splintering sound and looked up to see the door open, the wooden base of the lock fractured and some dope in a shirt and tie standing there with a suitably shamefaced look on his mug. Either he realized what a stupid thing he'd done or he sensed I wasn't into him. Was this part of some dipshit management training seminar way back when? Did "Brad" (let's call him such) have to wrench open doors to show he wouldn't take no for an answer, that he was a winner? I pictured him in a disused portion of some dismal office park, straining to pull yet another door open to the sound of his seminar leader clapping his hands, shrieking "earn this, Brad!" with a dog-eared copy of Sun Xi lying at his feet. But then I do these things.

 And if it has to happen, having the overture to Der Freischutz as your incidental music works great--I'm really trying to keep my face straight as I type this.

Equinox (1970): The Criterion Collection is an ongoing gem, having released probably hundreds of classic movies with full DVD extras, the masterpieces of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (no filmmakers have ever come closer to creating genuine magic on screen, I think) such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), and probably their most famous movie, The Red Shoes (1948), receiving particularly sumptuous treatment. Curiously, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the best of the lot and one of my ten favorite movies ever, hasn't yet, so far as I know. So why the Criterion people did Equinox I'll never know. An uncharitable part of me suspects that they, like many "serious" film critics, look down on horror and fantasy movies and decided Equinox was good enough to "represent," which, if true, was very, very wrong. There's an interview with horror writer/icon Forrest Ackerman that tries to explain the importance of the movie which was probably wasted on me, but then that was only because the movie wasn't very good (I guess). A "kid" named David (who looks older than I am) winds up in a hospital with a cross clenched in his hand and babbling about assorted nonsense. A reporter and doctor piece together his story and find out that he and three friends went off to find their professor friend who vanished in a nearby state park. A park ranger with prominent eyebrows tells them that the professor probably went back to the city. Despite some sort of alleged training in the occult, David fails to see anything wrong with the ranger being named "Asmodeus." There's some ancient book (I suspect this had something to do with Sam Raimi's original inspirations for the Evil Dead movies), monsters, other worlds, lots of running around, and wooden acting from the two romantic leads. The two mildly comic sidekicks fare much better, although much of the comedy comes unintentionally from the girl's rapidly shifting hair-lengths (her boyfriend played by Franklin Boers, later to become Frank Bonner and WKRP In Cincinnati's lustful Herb Tarlick). What distinguishes Equinox--to a point--is the model work on a number of monsters that menace the party. It doesn't quite rise to the level of Harryhausen, but it has its own rough-hewn charm, and it's rather impressive that it all started out on a student project for less than $7,000. Still, the sometimes clever special effects (watching the clay human "victims" get tossed around is genuinely hilarious) fail to make this much of a flick worth watching.

Green For Danger (1946): Criterion gets back to what it does best in releasing Sidney Gilliat's little gem of a whodunit from the immediate postwar British cinema. A couple of mysterious deaths take place in the wake of V-1 attacks on a rural English hospital, and Inspector Cockrill of Scotland Yard (Alastair Sim) finds himself called in to deal with the matter.  I made the huge mistake of reading Geoffrey O'Brien's superb introductory essay before writing this, and now feel horribly inadequate, my limbs all shrivelled up like a dead cockroach. He explains it with a verve and authority that I could never manage, but the movie's still a lot of fun, mixing the tropes and visual themes of the wartime drama, mystery, and, in a couple of places, horror movie, while remaining a fun, brisk little thriller. It helps that the original story was changed from the Blitz of 1940 to the V-1s of 1944, both fresher in the mind and sneakier in the attack, ratcheting up the tension. While the great Trevor Howard, Leo Genn (just as genially oily as he'd be twenty-five years later in Pete Walker's mildly disappointing sleaze classic Die Screaming, Marianne), and Megs Jenkins are excellent as some of the hospital suspects, it's Sim's show, as he perfectly inhabits a deceptively buffoonish Columbo-like detective who, even when he seems to have everything in hand, doesn't quite have all the answers. This would probably make a great bookend to a "Sim night"--Green For Danger, A Christmas Carol (1951; Sim's still probably the best Scrooge of all time), and The Belles of St. Trinian's (1955), not that I'm trying to give anyone ideas.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:25 PM EDT
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22 October 2007
Dungeon Girls And Mutant Squash
Now Playing: Lily Allen--"Everything's Just Wonderful"

Something I struggle to avoid in writing the blog is a rote recitation of the various things I've done or experienced--shows, parties, movies, books, walking--without some sort of context. One of the most frequent accusations made against blogs is that they're nothing more than narcissistic navel-gazing, which I find a little churlish. Many are, but all too often the accusations are made by paid writers studying pop culture for various publications, which really amounts to navel-gazing writ large and therefore renders them hypocrites of the first water (and nervous nellies--remember how the internet was going to make books obsolete?). In their defense, I suspect it's really their justified fear of the notion that anyone can write interesting and quality stuff for anonymous consumption, whether the material consists of weighty thoughts on politics and philosophy or "what I ate for breakfast"--a "celebrated journalist" on the British Horror Films forum once tore into a several-page rant on the subject, essentially accusing bloggers of stealing the bread from his children's mouths. My own reaction, sadly, has been to internalize this attitude and minimize the purely personal details (which usually aren't that interesting anyway) and lean more towards the cultural and culinary criticism that I enjoy doing in the first place. It becomes a problem when my social life overheats to the degree that it has recently.

Simply put, I am... seeing somebody. I don't want to write too much about it because of the whole aforementioned "personal downplay" mode, but also, I think, in a weird way, because I want it to stay ours. Suffice it to say, she's terrific, and it's an unusually pleasant meeting of circumstances: I've known her slightly for some time but don't really know much about her, and vice versa. So we're somewhat familiar with each other but there's still a lot to learn, which I think will be very, very fun. It occurred over the course of a weekend involving both a pumpkin-carving party and a happily abortive attempt to see The Darjeeling Limited at the Michigan Theater (it was sold out). This wasn't entirely a bad thing, especially as I have issues with Wes Anderson. I enjoyed Bottle Rocket (1996) and loved Rushmore (1998; although in the latter's case, it was probably more the soundtrack than anything else), but found The Royal Tenenbaums (2002; she disagrees, but who the hell names their falcon Mordecai?) a militantly twee toothache. I didn't bother to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and have heard a few negative rumblings over Darjeeling. Apparently Laura and Steve tried to get into the Q-n-A session with Anderson and that lovable scamp Jason Schwartzman at Borders a week ago, only to find themselves barred because they weren't "with the University" (for most cultural events in Ann Arbor, a vital requirement for "personhood"). Fortunately (for me, anyway, because it was hilarious), they got to watch the whole thing on a TV screen set up on the first floor. The same thing happened to me when Rackham Auditorium was too packed to hear Jeffrey Eugenides; Middlesex worshipper that I am, I found the concept a little too well-meaningly weird, and left. The intereview was, by all accounts, a cacophony of ass-kissing, with Schwartzman shamelessly mugging to the crowd at the end. The stench of phony Klostermanesque irony that ruined a perfectly good cultural moment in the late 90s hung over the whole idea of The Darjeeling Limited from the get-go, and I wasn't that sorry we couldn't get in. We all went to the Eight-Ball and had a better time than I thought we would, as I'd only gotten two hours of sleep from the night before.

 Mean Girls (2004): As relatively independent as I like to think myself from the world of celebrity obsessions, I have only myself to blame for not seeing this enjoyable little flick before, and all down to fear of what  Lindsay Lohan performance looked like in this day and age. The only other movie I'd really seen her in before was the lackluster remake (Lackluster? A remake? No!) several years before of The Parent Trap, and she wasn't that bad (the reason to see that one is that Natasha Richardson has never looked better). Besides, I love Tina Fey. 30 Rock could have been a stultifying landslide of smug in-jokes and tired hipster snark a la Wet Hot American Summer--excepting, of course, that canoe rescue scene and the great Paul Rudd--and it's instead one of the funniest comedies out there right now, and largely down to the quality and timing of the writing. Mean Girls doesn't quite rise to that level (although few things can) and gets a little preachy at the end, but it's a lot of fun and funny with it. Caddy (Lohan) and her parents return from the African bush to America, where Caddy has to maneuver the minefield of high school social life, especially the title characters (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried). While finding allies in an understanding teacher (Fey) and a nonconformist friend (Lizzy Caplan), Caddy finds herself seduced by the more privileged lifestyle and has to make some tough choices. That last bit is the original proposition, with Solzhenitsyn's quip about the line between good and evil made flesh in an American high school (pretentious but true). Though onetime Party of Five moppet Chabert's rather entertaining as the deceptively saccharine Gretchen, the lovely Caplan's the best reason to see the movie besides Fey's writing--she actually makes me wish I'd watched The Class while it was on.

Oh, this is pretty sweet, too.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 4:53 PM EDT
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1 October 2007
The Unknown Evil of Chard
Now Playing: Laura Veirs--"Cannon Fodder"

Now that I'm nominally, more or less, a sous-chef, I get to have even more mildly pretentious thoughts about the way I approach my job, which, with the definite exception of my boss and the moderate exception of the money (I should be paid more--in real terms, not in the way everyone should be paid more--but it could be worse), I greatly enjoy. I'm more firmly convinced, too, that my leaving the new restaurant was the right decision. I need to devote my full energies to the cafe and I've also come to the conclusion that there are a good many things about haute cuisine that I find rather silly. The place where I worked for two months is, as my chef of two months put it, pretty much as high-end as Ann Arbor gets. People who go there pay for both taste and presentation, and so I see the point of some of the things I did, like peeling asparagus stalks to be batter-fried (thus wasting perfectly good asparagus). Straining stocks, though, left a weird taste in my mouth. Most stocks involve the same basic ingredients that their eventual soups will--generally a mirepoix of onions, garlic, celery, often carrot, with meat or poultry carcasses if desired--and the necessity to pour it throuhg a large strainer and then through a fine chinois lined with a towel or cheesecloth is just a little too precious. It didn't help that as number of chefs and cooks of my present and past acquaintance seem to approach their craft as a kind of macho accessory, indulging in needless persnicketude for the sake of looking mysterious and authoritative; it's basically a way of showing how big their cocks are, something in which I want no--okay, little--part.

 I tried to drown my partial sorrrows Friday night with limited success. The Blind Pig seemed curiously lame (although I know a fair number of people who might think "seemed curiously" should be replaced with "was as always") and the music was a slight letdown. Part of it was down to me going out for the first time in... three months, I think, with a probably depressurization effect. I didn't feel like moving around, and was unable to properly say hello to a good many people I'd have liked to greet. The day, too, had already been so terrific that the evening already had a three-fourths chance of disillusion. I didn't stay to hear Great Lakes Myth Society (you know, the reason I was there)--they're always good, but I'd been put nearly to sleep by their predecessors Frontier Ruckus, who follow this well-trodden alt-country groove that comes close to proving Chuck Klosterman isn't entirely full of shit (make careful note that I said "comes close"--he's still a great example of everything wretched about my demographic). He had made the observation that most alt-folk/country bands make the tropes of pre-Grand Ole Opry country a fetish, singing about situations and characters they'd have rarely encountered in real life, making rural poverty and the fast-disappearing, alternately culturally worshipped and institutionally fucked-over agricultural existence in this country an aesthetic accessory. As with a lot of stereotypes, there are enough anecdotal examples to make such generalizations stick a little in the mind without any actual widespread proof (Klosterman's terribly good at bad-faith, self-serving "populism"--he's sort of the "hip" David Brooks). Nevertheless, Frontier Ruckus provided the former that night, at least to my likely prejudiced ears--it all seemed so mopey. In fairness, maybe I'd heard too many livelier bands of the type before to sit still without wiping my eyes. Samar and Ricardo stopped by, and I got to say an all-too-brief hello to the always friendly John Krohn, former producer for the Casionauts. Best of all, speaking of the Casionauts, there was also the pleasant surprise of "Deastro," the opening act, who delivered an unexpectedly blistering and melodic performance on drums and presumably pre-programmed keyboard, sometimes reminding me of the Casionauts, sometimes of Arcade Fire. It was an interesting bit of programming on the Pig's part, and his show was the highlight of the evening.

 This weekend also saw the first of my quasi-official experiments in soup-making at home. I'd made vichysoisse and stracciatella before, the first of which was pretty good, the second of which lacked appeal, but had no thought of offering the results to the cafe. I'd brought two in before--garlic and roasted red pepper soup and a black bean and pumpkin soup with a spicy flavor given by ginger and cumin. The second's been quite popular, while the first, though it looks great and has a lot of potential, lacks heft (I've often thought potatoes and mushrooms might do the trick, and may try them out at home). I've since built up a backlog of the soups I wanted to try, and did the first one Saturday.

Caldo Verde (Portuguese greens soup)

1 1/2 tbsp olive or veggie oil, 1 medium chopped onion, and 2 cloves garlic

Heat and stir in soup pot 5-10 mins or until tender, not browned.

8 cups of water (or 6 cups water and 2 cups chicken or veggie stock), 4 medium potatoes, thinly sliced, 1 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper

Stir in, bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until potatoes soft (20 mins?). Remove pot from heat and mash potatoes in pot to provide chunkiness. Return to heat.

1/2 tsp veggie oil, 6 oz linguica or chorizo sausage, thinly sliced

Brown in skillet over medium-high heat. Add to soup pot. Pour 1 cup of soup into skillet, scrape up browned bits and return to soup pot. Simmer 5 mins.

4 cups shredded kale, Swiss chard, or collards

Add and simmer 5 mins.

2 tbsp lemon juice

Add and serve in warmed bowls.

Hmmm. The recipe came from the All About Soups and Stews volume of the Joy of Cooking series, so I suppose caldo verde must have gone hand in hand with Harvey Wallbangers for the man when he got home to Levittown from his grey flannel job in the city after wondering why Adlai Stevenson even bothered running for President. I thought it lacked heft, but then I'm not a natural soup-eater; I'm just apparently good at making them (I don't say this as a boast--it's a matter of genuine puzzlement to me that I'm good at making soups for work but not all that wild about eating them). For me, soups should be a comfort food, thick and filling (insert joke). I like soups that come closer to the consistency of stews--thin, fluid soups don't really rock my world. Caldo verde turned out to be a bit runny for my taste, even after I let it simmer down for something like an hour. The cooking itself was, as it usually is, very enjoyable--I had the outside door open so the fire alarm wouldn't go off, Joy Division (anyone who thought John Simm was a deceptive marvel as Joy Division guitarist and New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People should check out his deliriously awesome performance as the Master in the last three episodes of the latest Doctor Who series--he really is something to see), Elliott Smith, Feist and Ennio Morricone were on the stereo, and Saturday afternoons are almost by their very nature a pleasure. It was interesting working with chorizo for the first time, especially as I found out that the bit I'd sampled the night before hadn't in fact been "like pepperoncini" but instead had been raw chorizo. Cooked, it was great, with the sharp paprika-inflected taste (still wary about paprika) slightly modified by the surrounding soup. The potatoes worked out trememdously well; slicing them with a chef's knife almost came out to mandoline quality and they cooked relatively fast. If only the rest of it turned out so well... I remain undaunted, though, as I'm guessing part of my culinary education is figuring out what doesn't work as much as the opposite. With caldo verde... it'd look a lot better with cream. There's no doubt about it, especially with the contrasting colors of the greens and chorizo; the latter in particular stains the whole thing a brownish-red. I wonder about the greens, too. I'm pretty sure I've eaten chard in salads (probably when I couldn't get any kale, rapini or arugula at the farmers' market--one sign of my present discrimination/pretentiousness vis-avis salads is that I now find spinach and romaine a little bland and can't even think about iceberg lettuce without my gorge rising), but the taste when cooked is supposed to be lighter and less insistent than the other greens specified in the recipe. I've eaten and enjoyed both kale and collards, and wonder if the whole wouldn't have been better had Hiller's actually had kale when I went there and had I not chosen collards instead of the unknown evil of chard. That was too good, by the way, to pass up; usually in the entry titles I go for some cheesy song lyric or movie line--inapposite, too as I just pull them out of my ass because they sound good--but that's a keeper, eh?* It's unfortunate, as chard's a rather attractive green, much like a well-built fern. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've saved four or five quarts, and may try adding cream later.

*Cf. the great Patrick Magee in Zulu--"Damn you, Chard! Damn all you butchers!"

**The best thing about the process, of course, is that I got to use my new food processor! I can see why so many cooks fall in love with theirs. Mine's ridiculously noisy, but I think it's just showing off.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 1 October 2007 4:20 PM EDT
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28 September 2007
Here Come Them Drums
Now Playing: Sondre Lerche--"Virtue and Wine"

What a day. Gorgeous outside, I have a lovely early morning coffee with my friend and colleague (first coffee I think I've had in years), a relatively stress-free day at work, am officially confirmed sous-chef at my job (mind you, again it's the same thing I've pretty much been doing for the past couple of years, with inventory thrown in), receive a few unexpected compliments and relax in the cool sun and shadow watching pretty girls pass by and chatting with aforementioned colleague and husband.

And Great Lakes Myth Society has yet to play the Blind Pig tonight. I'll have to remember this one.


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:04 PM EDT
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24 September 2007
His Final Biscuits
Now Playing: Ananda Shankar--"Streets of Calcutta"

A weird but good weekend--the autumnal equinox, Yom Kippur, Penn State at Michigan, my final weekend at "the other restaurant," and I just found out that a a guy I know in Iraq returned safe and sound! I think the one down-side must have been Brett Somers' passing (first Charles Nelson Reilly and now this!). RIP, Brett.

 Zoey Dean, Some Like It Hot: An A-List Novel (2006): I dimly remember a personal pledge made at the beginning of the year to venture outside my literary comfort zone a little, reading Tim LaHaye and Larry Jenkins' "Rapture" thriller Left Behind in January. The pledge fell into abeyance (not necessarily because of Left Behind; once you get past the absolutely ludicrous premise, it's actually pretty not-all-that-bad in certain places), until I was in the Borders entrance on day and noticed this thing sitting deservedly on the bargain shelves. I figured a bit of trash was just what I needed--the A-List series appeared to be the saga of ridiculously wealthy Beverly Hills teens, and a fitting successor to my Left Behind adventure. "It's prom season, and no town does prom like Tinsel Town. Ben is back for the summer--" oh, for God's sake, there are romantic complications and shocking revelations about various characters' parents' pasts, much of which can only be found after wading through an avalanche of detailed clothing, furniture, and various other consumer goods descriptions, generally focusing on designer names. There are three main characters--Anna, Cammie, and Sam. Anna's beautiful and good, Cammie's beautiful and bitchy, and Sam is beautiful and... well, sassy, which is unsurprising in this context, as she's also worried about her weight (not-"perfect"=sassy). Insofar as the story's involving at all, it's usually in the company of Sam, whose plan to make a documentary about the sorry losers at her high school who actually want to have something as declasse as prom becomes a kinder, gentler one towards the end. Cammie's also surprisingly entertaining, especially after accidentally burning down a classic Hollywood hotel and feeling mildly guilty about it. Anna is boring and pretentious, having a boyfriend whose idea of playful fondling is to hit her with pillows and make her say "Ben is the king!" three times in French. Quel dommage! There were moments when I just had to put the book down and look around in astonishment at the prose. It's breathtakingly awful, but often amusingly so (certainly enough to keep me reading, obviously). The one genuinely sore spot I found was the "fun" they have with a dorky clinical intern who has to chaperone one of their friends, on leave from rehab, to prom, which probably results in his losing his job. Tee hee. Zoey Dean apparently "divides her time between Beverly Hills and several small islands in the Caribbean" and "is currently working on her next juicy A-LIST novel, at an undisclosed location." All several of her, apparently. Some highlights:

"The words [to Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet] had struck her in their simple profundity. Not only had she memorized the verse, but she'd also hand-lettered the words on an index card and put the card inside the top desk drawer in her private study. (That year, her mother's designer had redone Anna's bedroom and adjoining study suite in Chinese antiques from the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Anna's new desk had been made from priceless huanghuali hardwood whose hand-carved pieces fit together without glue or nails.)" (50)

It's terribly, terribly important that we know this about Anna's bedroom, "adjoining study suite," and desk. In fairness, it's not so much the description I mind as the furniture catalog style in which it's rendered.

"Her eyes searched his. 'I really think... if we're honest with each other, we can be...' She searched for the right words. 'Far from the madding crowd.'

"He pointed at her playfully. 'Thomas Hardy. You thought I wouldn't know.'

" 'The sky was clear--remarkably clear--and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse,' Anna half-whispered. 'Isn't that amazing, that one man could write something like that?'

"Ben's strong hands circled her slender waist. 'I think you're amazing.' " (52)

This scene conjures up a mental image of a harried, down-on-her-luck English graduate component of "Zoey's" probable gestalt desperately trying to rustle up enough money to take the GREs, scribbling frantically in a 6-by-6 cubicle provided by Alloy Entertainment (the book's publishers) on her portion of the story, later confronted by an angry, cigar-chomping editor with "Thomas Hardy? What the fuck is this???"

"Sam was a Hollywood kid who knew every Hollywood trick in the book. And now she new something else; the truth about making love for the first time feeling beautiful in the eyes of a boy who adored you. Compared to this, drunken sex sucked ass." (185)

Actually, that was pretty funny, but the "you" after "adored" is pretty jarring.

"As for Amy, Twilla, and Heatherly, they were a triumvirate of blond, redhead, and brunette, but each with at least one facial feature that would knock them off the pretty list. Ben hated to admit this, but it was true. Twilla's eyes were too close-set; Amy's lips were almost painfully thin; and Heatherly's nose resembled a snowball that had been thrown at her face and smushed on impact. Ben was, of course, polite and friendly, complimenting their dresses, etc." (237)

That's just in case you thought you could make the "A-List." Ben's the "sensitive" one, incidentally (although he's also Anna's boyfriend, which explains much).

" 'Careful of your heads, ladies and gentlemen,' [the pilot] called over the sound of the engine, and offered a hand to help them into the copter, a commercial version of Marine One, the official helicopter of the president of the United States." (249)

I don't know what I found funnier--the fact that Sam and the gang took a chopper to prom (because limos are so gauche) or that "Zoey" found it necessary to bring in and slowly describe "Marine One, the official helicopter of the president of the United States," though an opportunity was missed, I think, to go the whole hog and identify "Marine One" as a "noun." Sometimes Some Like It Hot (come to think of it, "Zoey" had a lot of nerve naming it after one of the funniest movies ever--and unexpectedly the second Billy Wilder reference in as many entries; he and Peter Graves are starting to usurp this thing wholesale) reminds me of an Encyclopedia Brown adventure with sex, booze, drugs, and plastic surgery (regrettably, a delightful alternative, the Modern Humorist classic "Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Pirated MP3s" seems to have gone off-line). 

If I had the choice to read it again, I wouldn't.

Overlord (1975): I first read about this in Entertainment Weekly, probably about the time it was released on DVD for the can't-thank-them-enough Criterion Collection, having never heard of it before. Using archival Second World War footage from Britain's Imperial War Museum for what seems like half the movie, filmmaker Stuart Cooper portrays the journey of Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) from callow, dreamy army recruit, through training and the inevitably short wartime romance, to his eventual fate at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. While aiming for a kitchen-sink realism that it mostly achieves, Overlord also has a faintly hallucinatory patina, due to the bucolic nature of the countryside filming, the eerie calmness with which the soldiers face potential death in combat, and Paul Glass' pastoral, Vaughan Williamsy score. Stirner is excellent as a young man both utterly heedless of his situation and accepting of it at the same time. The very good cast is pretty much entirely made of unknowns, although Davyd Harries, as the wisecracking Welshman Jack (his explanation as to why he was never made an officer is one of the film's highlights), went on to a pretty decent career in British TV and films (among his roles was Shapp in the controversial 1979 Doctor Who story "The Armageddon Factor"). Overlord's a haunting movie, but a weird mix--both behind and ahead of its time, combining the anti-Establishment bitterness of 60s flicks like How I Won The War with the nearly Zen stasis of 90s productions like The Thin Red Line.

 


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 5:16 PM EDT
Updated: 24 September 2007 5:28 PM EDT
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