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Washtenaw Flaneurade
17 October 2008
Trappist-Style Aged Mayonnaise
Now Playing: John Cale--"Fairweather Friend"

My life hasn't exactly been uneventful recently; it's just that so much of what happens isn't really visible to others. Also, the downtown library computer lab's pretty much turned into the local homeless shelter by day, and while most of said patrons are quiet, unobtrusive characters, the bad apples are starting to get on my nerves (while I can hardly comprehend what some of these people have to go through in their daily lives, it is supposed to be a library--although such behavior, of course, is hardly limited to the homeless, as witness my housemates). I doubt I'd have blogged anyway, but I suspect it's becoming a more than minor factor in my online reticence. It's mostly been writing (after a month-long break) and reading, anyway, along with work, with film taking an unexpected dive. I've been a little stunned to find myself reading science books--Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, several collections of essays by Stephen Jay Gould, and a book on ecology and gardening (I'm thinking of learning next year). The weather's been fantastic, especially over the past couple of weeks. The tree in front of my window's been turning a brilliant red gold, which makes for some superb reflected sunsets against my wall. The graveyard looks stunning.

Election stuff's always captivating, especially this year. This is hilarious, and be sure to check out "I'm BATMAN!"'s contribution in the comments section.

Work's been adjusting itself to normal, as the novelty wears off and I seem to settle into a groove. It's a hilarious welter of stories and complaints there, most often from the people who've been there the longest. Bitching and back-sniping are a way of life (it is a restaurant, after all), but it'll take more than that to dent my general good cheer (although I tend to wonder about the ethics of staying a forthright, plucky sort partially for the specific purpose of pissing people off--it's not as important as I make out, but sometimes it helps). If you enjoy people-watching and-studying, it's a wonderful envoironment, with much more diversity than my former job (naturally, considering that it boasts over a hundred more workers than the cafe). I've been taking a few classes on cheese, and will probably start learning about olive oil in a couple of weeks. One of the good things, surprisingly enough, is that there's hardly any room for advancement. My immediate supervisor has been there for ten years, and our manager for twelve. One of the mid-shift cooks is, I believe, into his second decade. This will hopefully militate against my staying there (and in Ann Arbor) too long and also encourage lateral moves into some of the other shifts, if possible. There's more actual cooking that goes on in the morning, and more scope for creativity.

Culloden (1964): One of my favorite cinematic discoveries over the past couple of years has been left-wing British filmmaker Peter Watkins, whose massive, astonishing six-hour La Commune--Paris, 1871 (2000) I watched last Christmas Eve. His first major success came with this film for the BBC--like La Commune, a well-researched docudrama on a bloody episode in European history, and one of the most engrossing and thought-provoking films I've ever seen. This is mainly because it's not only a historical film, but also a film about history itself--how it's made, recorded, and rememebred. Having dealt at length in grad school with questions regarding the legitimacy of historical research from both traditional and "postmodern" persepctvies, and then being an amateur cineaste, I loved Culloden. Some will guess simply from the title that Watkins' subject is the last stand of Prince Charles "Bonnie Prince Charlie" Stuart's Jacobite force against the British army at Culloden Moor in Scotland in 1746, the final gasp of Stuart (primarily Catholic) resistance to what was seen as the usurping Hanoverian dynasty and its attendant Protestant commercialism that threatened traditional noble and clan-based society. The scenario, in nationalistic terms, may sound familiar, as it was used thirty years later to portray events four and a half centuries before, and was called Braveheart, a stirring movie in many ways, but a historical film of almost staggering awfulness. Watkins' approach to filmmaking could hardly get any different from traditional Hollywood. Culloden, like La Commune, is filmed as a TV documentary, recording the action as it happens and interviewing participants (played almost entirely by semi- or non-professional actors) like the foppish Bonnie Prince Charlie, some of the Hanoverian commanders (though catching only glimpses of the opposing general, the Duke of Cumberland), and especially common soldiers and noncombatants of either side (some speaking Scots Gaelic to an English-speaking translation voiceover). The result is brilliant, especially given the gritty, verite nature of the fillmmaking and production. The battle scenes are fantastic, eschewing Hollywood noble sacrifice in favor of the genuine horror of war as much as any sort of film with Watkins' budget probably ever could. The chilling--and deliberate--dispassion of the narrator (Watkins himself) works wonders: "This is grapeshot. This is what it does." The fight scenes were orchestrated by Derek Ware--stuntman, bit actor, and founder of frequent 1970s British TV stunt team Havoc (Doctor Who, Elizabeth R)--who would perform similar duties the next year on Watkins' most famous work, The War Game, an Oscar-winning depiction of a possible nuclear attack on Britain, which would be banned in the UK for the next twenty years. The work of cameraman Dick Bush is similarly inspired, giving Culloden a look that still remains fresh and even ahead of its time after four decades. They don't make movies like this anymore, but they were hardly making them back then, either. Watkins manages to convey his deep feeling for the ordinary participant in history without being too preachy (especially through his trademark closeup technique, cutting off the space above actors' heads so audience attention never escapes their faces). Unlike traditional English vs. Celtic and/or American cntests, the warts of each side are clearly revealed for the viewer. Though Watkins obviously feels for the destruction of traditional Highland society at the hands of proto-"globalizers" (an apparently conscious echo of contemporary anti-insurgency campaigns--France had just left Algeria and the US was about to get "serious" in Vietnam--and a theme that would echo much more forcefully in La Commune) and emphasizes the brutalizing effect of conflict on the combatants, he also doesn't shy away from the less savory aspects of clan life, demonstrating both the exploitative nature of the clan system and revealing the rift the rebellion opened up between different families and clans (the most obvious being the pro-Stuart MacDonalds and the pro-Hanoverian Campbells). There are no easy good or bad guys in the film, just as there are relatively few throughout history. If more films like Culloden were made, such truths might be easier to understand.

Silent Running (1971): I'd seen bits and pieces of Silent Running over the years, the actual film on VHS, and finally got to see the whole thing on DVD recently. An online chum of mine considers it the best American sci-fi film of the 1970s, and considering the competition from other decades, I might be willing to consider "of all time" status (along with The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001--if one considers it American, and Close Encounters--and the last for the musical sequences). It's certainly one of my favorite movies, a conviction reinforced by seeing it again. In the near future, Earth's been stripped of all its forests (how they're possibly getting enough oxygen is left unsaid) and a fleet of spaceships drifting through the solar system carry the last patches of green in colossal geodesic domes. When the news comes that the spaceship crews are to return to commercial service (jettisoning and destroying the domes), botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) determines to preserve his charges, and ends up killing the crew of his own ship (including a startlingly young Ron Rifkin) to do so. Lowell manages to steer the ship away from a potentially lethal confrontation with Saturn's rings and faces the prospect of an eternity alone with his two robot servants, "Huey" and "Dewey." It's a remarkable achievement: a stunning employment of special effects matched with an unexpectedly compelling and morally ambiguous story without being pretentious, preachy, or hackneyed. It also features Joan Baez music that doesn't make you want to puke or rip forth your eardrums (she's not that bad, but you probably know what I mean). Director Douglas Trumbull, son of special effects wizard Don Trumbull--who had, among many other feats, made the flying monkeys fly in The Wizard of Oz--was responsible for the look and effects of 2001 a couple of years earlier, and convinced Universal to let him make Silent Running as one of several "hip" films (along with Easy Rider and a few others) that the studio greenlit to capture the elusive "youth market." Everything looks fantastic. The spaceship models are amazingly realistic (whatever that means when discussing futuristic spaceship design), and the interiors are even better, mainly because they were filmed on an old aircraft carrier in the midst of decommission. Trumbull simply redid the interior structure with paint and a few cinematic touches and had a spaceship set. The robots look like oversized space-heaters on legs, and were performed by multiple amputees (one of many interesting details revealed in the DVD's thorough extras). The latter probably had a lot to do with their sympathetic performances (again, robots). The look is similar in some ways to 2001, but with quicker editing and more emotional connection to the events. I might be mistaken, but I think Lowell was the only role Dern ever had where he was the main actor, not co-starring with Jack Nicholson or doing ensemble stuff (for the latter, Michael Ritchie's brilliant 1975 sleeper Smile is well worth a look), and he's absolutely mesmerizing (especially considering that he came to Silent Running after a dry period in his career). It helps that Lowell isn't just some single-minded, fanatical eco-warrior. He likes hanging out with his crewmates, regularly cleans up at poker games (and enjoys it), and has ordinary ambitions (in his case, becoming head of a restored Park Service). The threat of destruction to what he considers "nature's greatest gift" makes him snap, and he spends the rest fo the film agonizing over what he's done, realizing the need for human companionship, and finally (in a way) confronting his crimes. One can sympathize with a motive but not excuse the crime, and this relatively simple dilemma (scripted by future producers and directors Stephen Bochco and Michael Cimino) plays out with fascinating scope and power throughout Silent Running. It really is a wonderful example of the sort of drama one often finds in literary science-fiction (and so rarely in cinematic), and its influence even helped to create Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 90s. I for one feel considerable pique at its relative obscurity when you consider that Trumbull came up with cute, squat non-anthropomorphic robots years before Star Wars and "future grunge" nearly a decade before Alien or Blade Runner. Trumbull went on to direct a couple of low-profile sci-fi flicks and the special effects on Close Encounters, but he ought to be considered one of the greats just for Silent Running.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:51 PM EDT
Updated: 17 October 2008 1:02 PM EDT
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27 September 2008
Dirk Smiley's Way Of Death
Now Playing: The Four Tops--"You Keep Running Away"
Eventually, I'll write something again, but simply had to post a link to this. My favorites are #s 23, 21, 5, and 4.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:28 PM EDT
Updated: 27 September 2008 3:30 PM EDT
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15 August 2008
Slithery, Peppery Goodness
Now Playing: The Meters--"Cissy Strut"

 Eggplant Caponata


1-2 lg. eggplants, cut into cubes

1/2 tsp salt

1/3 cup olive oil

1 big yellow onion

4 celery stalks

1/2 cup dried currants

3/4 lb. tomatoes

3 tbsp capers

1/2 cup red-wine vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

pepper to taste

Dice eggplant, let "sweat" in colander with thin layer of salt for 20 min. Saute cubes with 2-3 tbsp olive oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat, stirring occasionally, 5-10 min until they start to soften. Lower heat and cook 8-10 min. until soft. Transfer eggplant to bowl. In saucepan saute onion with half remaining olive oil over medium heat until tender 10-15 min. Scrape onion atop eggplant. Repeat with celery. Return onion and eggplant to pan with celery. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer, uncovered, 45-50 min.

 It was probably one of the most complicated recipes I've yet done (mostly due to the eggplant). At one time in my life, I would have greeted eggplant caponata with a gag reflex, and it's undeniable that the texture won't appeal to many. Though the feel, once it's finished cooking, is very thick and rich (particularly the taste--sweet, sour, and salty all at once), the texture is indisputably slimy and could conceivably be an acquired taste. Mine was probably especially so as I had to approximate an amount of currant preserves rather than dried currants. I had it straight and it was fine; my throat didn't rebel once. It was much better, though, paired with an opposite--something relatively bland but with a thick, chewy texture--in this case chicken (and delicious organic Amish chicken at that, which is relatively cheap if you get it frozen at Hiller's). I understand it's good with toast or pork as well.



Mole Verde

3 cups chicken broth 

2 cloves garlic

1 can plum tomatoes

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1/2 cup cilantro

1 tsp vegetable oil

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

1 small jalapeno, seeded

2 serrano peppers, seeded

3 romaine leaves

1/2 tsp cinnamon

pinch cumin, pinch pepper

salt to taste

Toast pumpkin seeds, stirring occasionally, until browned (c. 5 min.). Cool, then mash in blender or food processor until powdery. Mix in 1 cup broth, remove from blender. Drain canned tomatoes and toss in empty blender with chilies. Add lettuce, onion, garlic, cilantro, cinnamon, pepper, cumin. Blend until smooth. Heat oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan then heat broth sauce c. 5 min., stirring until thick and dark. Add veggies and stir. Gradually add 2 cups broth, depending on thickness, and simmer 25-30 min. Season with salt.

 Mole was fun, and looks and tastes delicious. I made it myself when I worked at that high-end restaurant last year, although I had to go through the somewhat toity step of straining the solid bits through a fine chinois--which didn't quite take as long as shredding and grating horseradish, but it came pretty close. I'm generally wary or disdainful of excessively sensual descriptions of food and cooking, not necessarily due to hostility but because they've become such a hipster cliche. It's hard to avoid, though, when talking about mole. You get to smell the toasting seeds and thrill as they pop like corn kernels from the heat. The pumpkin seed broth made at first looks and smells after a while like cafe mocha or cafe au lait, and stirring the broth/veggie mix is a real pleasure. I tweaked it a bit--adding arugula with the romaine for added pepper, and making up the difference on the pumpkin seeds (I don't think I had quite half a cup) with green pepper seeds. It was fantastic--like caponata, it went very well with a relatively bland but chewy food like chicken, and even better with a gorgeous, lazy Friday evening, a few bottles of Pacifico, a couple of Sweeney episodes, and Ratatouille.

And here's the election boiled down, by the way.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:55 AM EDT
Updated: 16 August 2008 1:22 PM EDT
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4 August 2008
Hippie Communist Monkey Junk
Now Playing: Thin Lizzy--"Rosalie"

The Ultrasounds, The Way Things Were (2008): The Ultrasounds recently won Current's "Most Underrated Band" award, an honor they fully deserved. I'm not being flippant or sarcastic here; in a town whose musical scene has been unusually crowded for a burg its size since the days of the MC5 and the Stooges (it has to be said, however annoying it can be whenever anyone brings up Ann Arbor's "glory days"), to win a "most underrated" award is a definite achievement. Of all the groups in town, they really deserve to be better known, especially with the release of their debut CD (and hopefully the so "Ann Arbor," Frederic Jameson-checking Ann Arbor Observer shoutout in the August issue will help). I first met the Ultrasounds--singer/bassist Chris Smith, drummer/keyboardist Sara Griffin, and guitarist Patrick Betzold--at one of Starling Electric's storied afterparties at the old "White Lodge" on Third Street, and they've unsurprisingly had a fairly close association with the better-known group, right down to Jason DeCamillis producing The Way Things Were. They're a notably charming, unassuming bunch, and it's a bigger relief than usual in these cases that their music doesn't suck. I've probably written this before, but what I like most about the Ultrasounds is that they don't have a particular "shtick" or affiliation to any kind of musical practice or ideology. They just bear down and play straight-up indie pop-rock. That alone makes them rather unique in this town, where the often obvious nature of the influences fly thick and fast (witness the avalanche of folk-inspired or alt-country acts). That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course; Starling Electric's my favorite band in Washtenaw County (sharing "best in Michigan" honors with the Dirtbombs) and they're quite open about their loving affection for the sunny-side pop music of the 60s and 70s--it produces fantastic music. The Ultrasounds' reticence in these matters, though, is quite refreshing and equally fruitful. The tunes on the album all have an unvarnished, romantic quality to them, calling up the deceptively placid, secretly tempestuous nature of post-urban life through a variety of sounds--bluesy ("The Easy Way Back"), frantic ("You Don't Even Know"), chill ("Home"), sunny ("Why Don't We Leave"), and anthemic (the title track). The music's steady and sure, the three tight and professional, with Betzold showing more than enough virtuosity to impress but not so much that he overwhelms the other two (not likely anyway, with Smith's impassioned singing and Griffin's pleasantly relentless beat). My personal favorites are probably "You Don't Even Know," with its desperate urgency, and "Why Don't We Leave," where Griffin takes over singing duties with a sweet, clear voice that underlines the band's multitalented nature. Watching them at the Heidelberg's Club Above Saturday night, running through their own mateiral, covering "Roxanne" (with Griffin on vocals again) and using Edison Lighthouse as a warmup riff, made me feel a little privileged, like I was in on some cool secret. Ruin it for me, and go see them (at, for instance, T.C.'s Speakeasy on the 30th).

Karyna McGlynn, Alabama Steve (2008): The poetic lays recording the adventures of the eponymous, protean rogue strive to answer the question posed in "Stephen Brownblatt"'s sidesplitting introduction: "Which came first? Steve or Steveness?" Itself a masterpiece of parody--in this case, the insufferably pompous, pretentious worldview of a literary elite--the intro even nabs a little context when one looks over the back cover. "Alabama Steve" is a Coyote/Trickster figure for the "orange Trans Am on cinder blocks" set, at once reminiscent of the dude who used to live across the street when I was a kid and fire his shotgun in the backyard every now and again just for the hell of it*, and of the gas station attendant in a Beavis and Butt-head episode when the guys tried to buy gasoline--"sorry, dudes, if you want to buy gas, you've gotta have a container." Steve interacts with a number of other Steves (McGlynn's central conceit being Donal Logue's in 2000's The Tao of Steve, that "Steve" is the prototypical American male) including Steve Perry, Gutenberg, Nicks, Steve Beowulf, and, best of all, the loathsome Brownblatt, narrator of my favorite piece, "My 3rd Appointment with the University's Writer-in-Residence": "Anyway, I went to the cabin and all I brought with me was a notebook, a pen, and a collection of erotic verse by the ancient Chinese Poet, Li Po (...good friend of mine, great poet, great poet)." For someone with a distinct allergy to much modern poetry (and someone not terribly passionate about poetry in general), Alabama Steve is particularly enjoyable because it's not standard poetry in free verse or any kind of meter--the pieces read more like one-sided conversations or surrealist tall tales, all chronicling the relationship between the narrator and her Steves, from the Canadian border to Stevie Nicks' underwear to crappy regional flights in Latin America. Having heard some of these read aloud (at Shaman Drum, a perversely ideal location) only underlines how well Steve gets down the rhythm of deceptively vapid aughties speech. Incorporating visiting poetic "Roberts" like Lowell or Browning feels like a nose-thumb at the stereotypes of what constitutes poetry. Matched with the grimly hilarious world of the Steves, it all feels downright exhilarating. Karyna has sadly decamped now for Austin, but in her honor, and that of her marvelous collection, I'd just like to say "good friend of mine, great poet."

*Or maybe to thin out the UFO flocks.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 1:10 PM EDT
Updated: 6 August 2008 12:13 PM EDT
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31 July 2008
No, YOU Put Your Pants Back On
Now Playing: Neon Neon--"Sweat Shop"

Happy 30th Birthday, Kenissa McKay!

The mass exodus of friends I'd dreaded at the beginning of the year hasn't quite come off yet, but the attrition rate's starting to tell. Tuesday it was Adam and Karyna's turn; I stopped off that evening, getting off work early, to say goodbye, and wound up lingering for several hours. And then there's my friend Jenee, who's leaving her job in town to go to nursing school in Detroit. Dear God, who'll be next?

Fortunately, I think I'm settling into the job quite nicely, and my writing's really taken off in the past month or so.

And... that's it right now, really. Hm.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:15 PM EDT
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19 July 2008
I Can Scarcely Credit That You Neglected To Tell Me It Couldn't Have Been Industrial-Strength Margarine Abruzzese
Now Playing: The New Pornographers--"Jackie Dressed In Cobras"

While Charlie Pierce certainly still needs his own blog, Ezra Klein's posts, attached to the American Prospect website, are well worth reading, on foreign policy, biking, settlement patterns, why people like myself were lukewarm on Hillary Clinton, and John McCain's scintillating opinions on Social Security.

The streets of Ann Arbor have been seized in the tentacles of the dumbest thing ever, and it's the first year I haven't staffed the Planned Parenthood booth when I've been in town (last year I spent with Jess and the gang in Marquette). With the wedding and the new schedule, I didn't know how much energy I'd have to devote to interests outside the house. Fortunately, I think I've finally gotten used to working evenings instead of days; I was able to go to my friend Nicole's birthday party Tuesday night and not bring down the festivities (at least I don't think so), so these are good signs. It's high time I got back to volunteering and giving back to the community and all that high-minded crap. I also need to start cooking at home again.

L. Sprague De Camp, Lovecraft: A Biography (1975): The literature on H.P. Lovecraft is pretty immense--he's certainly one of the most heavily examined and criticized writers in the realm of weird fiction, due to his influence, his extreme attitudes on a great many subjects, and the voluminous nature of correspondence and archival material. He was a compulsive epistler, and left reams upon reams of letters to friends, casual acquaintances, and fellow writers. Bowled over by the sheer effect of the man's cumulative body of work, as well as the informative introductions to the Penguin editions of Lovecraft's works by S.T. Joshi (who's aslso done Dunsany and the great M.R. James, for whom Lovecraft had a great deal of praise in his 1927 treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature), I decided to check out L. Sprague De Camp's 1975 biography, expecting a needed defaltion, as there's been a good deal of embarrassing idolatry around Lovecraft at least since his death in 1937. De Camp is a wonderful writer, whose early novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939) and his 1940s series collected as The Compleat Enchanter demonstrated a superb gift for rendering exquisite fantastic backdrops and plots while still keeping tongue firmly in cheek to maneuever down-to-earth characters through a spectacular story. Unfortunately, he lets himself and Lovecraft down in the biography. Lovecraft was, by the standards of his day and ours, a very strange character. Smothered by a suffocating mother, he lived most of his life in Providence, with a two-year stint in Brooklyn, never held a job, and didn't seem terribly interested in sex (come to think of it, there are hardly any important female characters in his fiction, besides the strong-willed Asenath in 1933's "The Thing On The Doorstep"). To someone like De Camp, with his engineering background and firm miring in the socially conformist culture of postwar America, Lovecraft's lifestyle couldn't have been any more foreign. Much of De Camp's biography is basically a huge finger-wag at his subject, conducted with a bizarre kind of he-man prissiness that also occasionally mars Lin Carter's 1973 "history of fantasy" Imaginary Worlds (Carter was good friends with De Camp; both contributed mightily to the "sword and sorcery" quotient of American literature during the postwar era). It doesn't help that Lovecraft's racist and anti-Semitic views, though shared by most Americans during his lifetime (though he managed to ignore the latter enough to marry an attractive Jewish businesswoman for two years and stay amicable after their divorce), were expressed in his letters to a depressingly elaborate extent (although he either disowned or moderated most of these views later in his life). De Camp goes to great lengths in (correctly) explaining the then-relative-universality of such views, but does so with an unpleasant smugness that prefigures the jackasses who pride themselves on being "politically incorrect" in our own day (when they're really just endorsing old prejudices in the guise of rebellion against nonexistent oppressors)--he certainly doesn't seem to carry on this way when examining the question of Lovecraft's possible homosexuality (at one point, he mentions that of the "big three" of the classic 1923-54 pulp Weird Tales--Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith--only Smith was never suspected of having "abnormal" sexual urges, or something of that nature). I know it was 1975 and everything, but one can use historical context as a fig leaf. It's an interesting situation, actually; a biographer writing in our day, when culture in general--and presumably the biographer--would be more hostile to such attitudes, probably wouldn't indulge in such showy hand-wringing as does De Camp. De Camp's biography is good enough to start with, i suppose, but I suspect anyone wanting a more informative or sympathetic treatment might be better off with Joshi's, which I sadly haven't read yet (he's also written The Weird Tale, an analysis of the genre in the early twentieth century, which I very much look forward to reading).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 18 July 2008 12:22 PM EDT
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14 July 2008
Au Bonheur des Aubergines
Now Playing: Serge Gainsbourg--"Chatterton"

Happy Bastille Day! Aux BarricadesEcrasez l'Infame! Algerie Fra--hey, wait...

I went home to attend my dad's wedding in Baton Rouge last weekend. Usually my visits home are almost entirely family-centric, but this time proved an interesting contrast. My brother and sister-in-law were scheduled to volunteer at "Art Melt," an LSU-affiliated exhibition and festvial along Third Street downtown. They asked if I wanted to hang out downtown for a few hours while this was going on, and it was really a no-brainer. Downtown and the general area around the LSU campus are the only parts of town for which I ever had all that much time. Baton Rouge technically "dates" from 1699, when Bienville first sailed past and saw the famous "Red Stick," but the town itself wasn't much more than a fort with attached buildings (the site of a now largely forgotten battle in 1778 between Spanish and British troops, part of a campaign associated with the American Revolution, in which my Canary Islander ancestor took part) until the early nineteenth century and the layout of still-extant "Beauregard Town," where I used to live for a while.

I hadn't explored downtown in several years, and was curious to see what had happened. Back in the late 90s, downtown was a deservedly well-kept secret, with only a few places to hang out; the quality/quantity disparity was pretty intense. After the state and financial sector's work concluded for the day, the place effectively became a ghost town with a few exceptions. The Thirsty Tiger on Main (and one had to look hard to find it), M's Fine and Mellow Cafe on Third Street, and The Spanish Moon towards the head of the interminable Highland Road--that was pretty much it. It was always a kick to wander the place in the small hours of the morning, nearly able to imagine a genuinely deserted city. In the decade since I lived in Baton Rouge, I'd heard rumors that downtown was undergoing a small revitalization, and was pleased, as it's a fantastic location and if there's a city that could use a density makeover, it's Baton Rouge. After checking it out, I have mixed feelings. There are a number of new places open--bars and restaurants--but the ones open past 5 or so all seem to congregate along lower Third Street and part of North Boulevard. Bogart's, a gay bar where the Desiree's staff would frequently congregate after work, was either gone or massively overshadowed by its next-door neighbor. At least one excellent if overly "hipsterish" new bar, The Red Star (of which more later), lies near the former site of lame "alternative" coffeeshop Insomneeack's, but the establishments down towards North are decidedly more mainstream, almost aiming for a "poor man's Bourbon Street" vibe (although I may be prejudiced in that there was a major festival going on). Boudreaux and Thibodeaux's sounds like what it is, a Cajun-themed bar/restaurant with live music, poboys, and other staples. The Roux House, on the former site of M's, was inoffensive if overpriced, although the lack of character and the crap music made an unfortunate comparison with its predecessor (including the absence of the latter's gloriously certifiable owner). The less said about Happy's Irish Pub the better--it's definitely one of the most grotesque, repulsive "Irish pubs" I've ever seen. Between all these and the river lies the Shaw Center for the Arts, containing a number of galleries and restaurants including the unexpectedly good LSU Museum of Art (greatly expanded from the lackluster Anglo-American Museum that used to hide in the ground floor of Memorial Tower on campus), including Hogarth's Portrait of a Lady from around 1740, G.P.A. Healy's lovely 1845 Lady in a Black Gown, and Thomas Badger's 1820 portrait of Captain Cleves Symmes, who may or may not be John Cleves Symmes, the wacko who tried to organize an expedition to explore the earth's core well before Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

So I had a nice long ramble, hitting the two State Capitols, communing with the river and discovering that they'd put a bike trail atop the levee. I'd made the mistake of entering the Roux House, drifting into the courtyard (their sole improvement) and surveying the crowd outside on Third Street, when I caught sight of an old friend of mine. I'd met this friend through my ex-girlfriend when I was home from college one summer and we got to be quite chummy over the years, taking long drives down River Road, rooting through old graveyards in St. Gabriel, and up to St. Francisville--again, rooting through old graveyards--without my ever figuring out that she had a crush on me (a real shocker that, considering my legendary--to me, anyway--incompetence at picking up signals). Now, of the surprising number of women about which this has been the case, she's way up there. She was and is really cool and I always had a great time hanging out with her. Indeed, I often had twinges while we hung out, wondering, but again, nothing ever came of it. I said hello and we talked for a while, sitting on the curb and then at the Red Star. Great jukebox (Toots and the Maytals and Joy Division both available), good beer, terrific company--one can rail about hipster bars all one wants (and I have), but when one lives in a hipster town (genuine or no), the bar's charms can seem all the more rewarding. We chatted with her friends (among them, astonishingly enough, a guy I used to live with ten years ago, in a boarding house on State Street, a time in my life which still generates great dollops of nostalgia) and we had a long, involved discussion of various sorts. While really cool, she's also genuinely admirable. She not only stayed in Baton Rouge while just about everyone else I know, myself included, hi-tailed it as far away from the place as possible once we'd gotten inevitably sick of it, but also gets involved with and fights for progressive causes, notably sensible transportation (especially bicycle use), in what's surely an unhappy environment in which to do so (and what's with this guy, incidentally?).

 I have never seriously considered moving back to my hometown or home state for various reasons. The whole "ingrained conservative" thing was never that big of an issue (I was, after all, a captive audience for my first two decades and became known as one of my high school's "house liberals"); I'd just lived there too long and wanted to try somewhere else. Those who can't understand this can take comfort from the fact that I've never been able to fathom the need or desire to stay in one place for an entire lifespan or anything remotely approaching it. That said, my friend came closer than anyone else has--or probably ever will--in making me rethink my resolve. At the very least, I plan to keep in better touch with her. I also need to stop mentally writing the place off. In my darkest and most cynical moments, I expect that within a couple of decades, given the present habits of energy use and general attitudes, half of Louisiana will be underwater while the other half will look like the second act of A Boy And His Dog (1975). I should probably stop doing that. After all, how would I feel if people from other countries (to say nothing of online chums from abroad) wrote off the US just because of the past six years (which they probably already have)?

With all this rattling around in my brain, I was unexpectedly preoccupied when my dad's wedding rolled around. It was one of those huge family-society functions to which I used to have a severe allergy and can still only get through with the aid of certain "fluids." To be sure, this had nothing to do with my dad or his new wife. I've met her only twice but she seems really cool and is by all accounts very good with my half-brothers, whose mother tragically passed away two years ago. All in all, it was the usual whirl of mini-family reunions and commiserations with the McKay family "center-left sleeper cell and associates." Good times, all told.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:44 AM EDT
Updated: 14 July 2008 12:34 PM EDT
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3 July 2008
Delta Males And Duck Butter
Now Playing: David Bowie--"Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family"

Au Pair Girls (1972): The milieu of the sixties-seventies British "sex comedy" has probably become familiar to American viewers conversant with the subject via dark hints lying behind the bright surfaces of Benny Hill (which I've strangely never seen). A fellow British Horror Forum poster has dedicated much of his free time to chronicling these films--ranging from the dodgier of horror thrillers to outright porn--on, and it was through reading these reviews (I think) that I found Au Pair Girls, which sounds pretty much like what it is. Four young women--Anita from Sweden (Astrid Frank), Randi from Denmark (Gabrielle Drake, a popular actress of the period and sister of tragic folkie hero Nick Drake), Nan from Hong Kong (Me Me Ly) and Christa from Germany (Nancy Wait), fly to London to take up their titular jobs with various families. The color TV-obsessed Anita unwittingly drives her suburban employer (poor Geoffrey Bayldon) insane with lust, goes out with a sleazy cabdiver (Coronation Street's Johnny Briggs, who's surprisingly dull in this) and ends up with a fabulously rich sheik (Ferdy Mayne) who wants her for his harem. Randie's picked up by her boss' son (Richard O'Sullivan, who looks like a hilariously grimy and unwashed James Blunt in a three-piece suit), who keeps having fantasies about naked women (uh... the horror?) and soon finds his dreams becoming reality through a series of ludicrous contrivances. Things take an unexpectedly serious detour as Nan arrives at a rural manor house (which I could swear was the same location for 1974's Vampyres) and finds herself taking care of Rupert (Julian Barnes), an aristocratic family's worryingly childish son in his twenties--if any part of Au Pair Girls was going to "turn horror," it would have bene that one, as Rupert, despite his initial charm, seems to regard the world as his own personal dollhouse. Christa, meanwhile, has to contend with her employers' daughter Carol (Lyn Yeldham), an aggressively hip and shapely character who gives her "new friend" a makeover and drags her to a ghastly pop concert that was probably three or four years out of date by the time the movie was made, featuring a hideous Jim Morrison-type "singer" (reminiscent of one of the guys on the sandwich line at work) and the great John Standing as an aging hipster who views the neverending parade of nubile disco popsies as notches on his belt. As one might imagine, Christa has her eyes brutally opened to the dark side of fame... or something. After things generally go tits up--sometimes literally--the plotlines tie back together in a "happy ending" whose actual loathsomeness somehow only adds to the fun. It's an absolute howl from start to finish, Nan's rather creepy story helping to cleanse the palate between filthy hijinks and vaguely moralistic soap opera. The movie's drenched throughout by a theme song and its variations that sound like dirty airline jingles, with frantically leering camera angles that peter out after the first few minutes, the audience well and duly hooked. I love it all, but the high points? Gabrielle Drake, a genuinely likable and talented performer who manages some decent light comedy in a couple of scenes with the distraction of not having any clothes on (part of the aformentioned contrivances), and Lyn Yeldham, who never did anything after this, so far as I know, but who ends up with some of the greatest lines in English-speaking cinema, which can be ably represented by "Ricky Strange is appearing at Groover's tonight, and I'm not missing the freakout of the month for any bloody au pair!" Au Pair Girls, directed by Val Guest, was made by Tigon Films, one of the many non-Hammer horror specialists of the sixties and seventies (and arguably better in many ways than its more famous rival)--apparently they'd given up on cracking horror, despite such classics as The Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), and underrated finds such as The Blood Beast Terror (1967), and decided to concentrate on the sex comedy stuff. It may not have turned out a very wise move financially, to my knowledge, but that productions like Au Pair Girls were left behind in the wake of their probable failure is cause for surprising thanks.

 OSS 117--Cairo, Nest of Spies (2008): A French James Bond spoof set in the 1950s Middle East, based on the comic novels by Jean Bruce, sounds like it can't possibly miss, and yet OSS 117, despite being very funny, flags quite a bit and doesn't have the same comedic drive of a film like Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery.* Whether this is due to translation issues, the director's need to make some satirical political points that occasionally tend towards the strident, or the simple failure of some of the jokes, I can't quite figure out. Suffice it to say it isn't as funny as I thought it would be, but it was still worth it. Ace French secret agent "OSS 117" (Jean Dujardin) is sent by his superiors to Nasser's Egypt shortly before the Suez Crisis of 1956 to investigate the disappearance of his friend and comrade Jack. While there he deals with rival agents of various nationalities, angry nationalists of both the Islamic and secular variety, and his sexy Egyptian assistant Larmina (Berenice Bejo). Dujradin resembles a cross between Steve Coogan and Dwayne Johnson, and his manic arrogance offers a perfect hook on which to hang a spy parody, taking aim at both the conventions of postwar espionage thrillers and Western "Orientalist" assumptions concerning Middle Eastern culture. Examples of the former include visions of 117's dead partner Jack, remembered in hilariously homoerotic beach montage, 117's awful "casual"wardrobes, veiled threats between 117 and his enemies that take the form of zoological analogies (one thinks of Number One's "Siamese fighting fish" in From Russia With Love), jaunty macho laughter that goes on for way too long (in a joke used several times too often in the movie), and my favorite--as in Bond movies, people drink lots of liquor, and after a few at the Embassy, we see 117 leave the office and immediately run into a nearby door. Examples of the latter primarily concern 117's vast ignorance of Islam or Arabic and Egyptian culture, despite his alleged expertise in such matters (at the movies end, the powers that be decide to send him to Iran)--the specifics are too numerous to list. So, while not quite the brilliant satire it seems to think itself, OSS 117 definitely breaks new ground in the spy satire subgenre--considering the proloiferation of stupid, overblown action movies in this allegedly "serious" new age, a subgenre that could use a lot more films.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 3 July 2008 1:18 PM EDT
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28 June 2008
Death To Rhubarb
Now Playing: Ludwig van Beethoven--"Marcia Funebre" from Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica")

Well, I'm still at the job--it's still better-paying, more rewarding, and more interesting. Life at Chateau Fluffy actually took a bit of a dive in terms of incident after my favorite co-worker and friend was "droped from the schedule" (again, a weasel tactic of shithead bosses who want to avoid dismissal paperwork), to say nothing of Fluffy's own long hoped-for departure. Luckily, life in my present basement kitchen promises much--my pleasant co-workers have a cool, diverse taste in music and quite a line in filthy banter, the above-stairs staff, particularly the attractive female ones, seem to regard us (well, me) as troglodytes in every sense of the word (natrually allowing for my own habitual paranoia on that score), and our kitchen manager is a sort of priapic, cycling hippie autocrat given to sayings as "I'm not wrong, I'm the boss" and who espouses quite a vocal belief in the aphrodisiac powers of organic greens, no matter how wilted, an obsession that extends to a drink he invented for the deli widely perceived as unfit for consumption by several co-workers (I'd drink it if there wasn't anything else in the house). It's a slight exaggeration, of course--the last couple of days have been rather enjoyable from that quarter. I'd gotten a creepy feeling from some of the things I'd heard about the place that it was near perfect, and I'm utterly delighted to find the same crap there that spices up most other restaurant jobs (oh, and there's no escaping World of Warcraft aficionados, either--just as well since I've had a great time with the ones I've known), which I suppose is inevitable in a place with nearly two hundred workers, six different departments, and a spotless reputation among Ann Arbor rentiers.

Of course, most regular jobs don't follow an open-book finance policy or pay you to take classes. These can be food, service, business/personal finance, or computer classes. I've had to take several to get through "orientation," a procedure that's supposed to take about two months after which one qualifies for a pay raise, access to benefits, etc. The especially informative ones, of course, were on food--one comparing and contrasting our food with similar items from around town, and one on chocolate. I'm glad I took the latter as I didn't know chocolate could be so genuinely good. I like it, but I'm not crazy about it the way I'm crazy about cheese (can't wait for that class). Fortunately, our instructor took us through the different types of chocolate we carry (one fantastic example from Sao Tome e Principe), how it's made from cacao beans (never seen a cacao bean until that moment, I don't think), what to look for, and why Hershey's is basically chocolatized vanilla. One of the things I most want to do there is learn about food, and it looks like the place won't lack for opportunity on that score.

 My dreams are improving, too. I found myself back at Chateau Fluffy working for my last boss (we'll call him "Biff"), moonlighting a couple of days a week in some cushy job I couldn't quite understand, as the whole place went to hell in a handbasket with Biff's wife behind the counter and an unwelcome surprise return visit from Fluffy with a bunch of friends who looked like they listed Live at PJ's as a "residence." The place actually looked really good, like a really tasteful Middle Eastern restaurant, with soft, pale stucco and a strong Moorish cast to the architecture. Unfortunately, Fluffy decided for whatever reason that I was being "rude" (with her inimitable screech when upset and I chose that moemnt to check out what happened to the kitchen. Wow! The rather cramped space morphed into a vast, cavernous structure of a medieval flavor, rather resembling the Bernadones' warehouse in Franco Zefferelli's 1973 St. Francis biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Wandering around, I climbed further and further up until I found a gorgeous loggia overlooking a stunning Mediterranean harbor (hard not to associate with the vaguely Southern European city that keeps popping up in my dreams). Overlooking me? A sour-faced middle-aged duenna and her gorgeous, scantily-clad young ward (I got the impression that they were more than "just friends"), carving puppets and the latter with an enigmatic smile on her face. Hell, yeah.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:09 PM EDT
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17 June 2008
So Shallow, The Undefeated
Now Playing: MGMT--"Future Reflections"

I'm now over a month into the new job, and rather enjoying it. It was truly eerie at first getting used to not working weekday mornings. For four years, I worked a more-or-less nine-to-five Monday-through-Friday schedule, and was worried about what having my weekends mashed up might be like. Of course, the last time I worked weekends, I'd just moved to Ann Arbor and had no idea what was going on. Though I've barely seen any friends or gone to any shows, I've managed to keep busy with the old reading and writing (and recently watching old episodes of Wodehouse Playhouse--oh, Pauline Collins). After a break of two weeks during whcih I could get used to the new schedule, I started writing again with an alacrity I didn't have the last time I broke after an extended period--both fiction and a series of sixties-era British horror film reviews for an online chum's book project. I'm now on the last of three days off in a row--very rare--and am surprisingly going stir-crazy from the freedom. Things are cool.

 The business itself has a reputation for treating its workers very well. Few businesses get known for that, so this distinction in itself is one of the things that brought me to apply. Simply put, I generally work less than I did at the old job for the same amount of money, with a raise at the end of two months and probably another one at the end of six (with the chance to apply for health insurance in the meantime). The place has a codified approach to training that to some might seme a little cultish, but coming off a job with effectively no approach to training, I'm not complaining. It's a little odd, to be sure, going from a place with five or six workers maximum to one with fifty at a time (over a hundred total), but not that odd. I do prep work in a deli kitchen and get the chance to take classes offered by the company that are eventually intended to benefit the latter through educating me (food, business, etc.). So it's quite a step up from Chateau Fluffy, and I can think of few better places to wait out Ann Arbor. They wanted a year commitment, and I think I might do two, especially if I can move to one of their other businesses--preferably the bakery or creamery--and learn more there.

Super Furry Animals, Hey Venus! (2007): I held off on writing anything about my favorite living band's latest album largely because I was initially disappointed. The productive, wildly imaginative Welsh rockers have kept up a rarely less-than-excellent run over their near-fifteen years of existence, although sometimes I've had to give a few albums several listens before I finally came to love them. Such was the case with Hey Venus!, perhaps because of lead singer Gruff Rhys' burgeoning solo career (with gems such as 2006's Candylion) and other collaborative projects (such as Neon Neon, an 80s-retro outfit whose album Stainless Style is taking its sweet time in winning me over)--I worried that they might be spreading themselves too thin. Fortunately, it turned out to be just another case of needing a little time. While songs like "The Gift That Keeps Giving" and "Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon" hark back to the neo-folk stuff they've perfected on Phantom Power (2003) and Love Kraft (2005), hardr-rocking tunes like "Neo Consumer" and "Into The Night" take up a gritty style that last predominated on albums like the glorious Radiator (1997). Some, like "Baby Ate My Eightball" and "Show Your Hand," simply defy references to the band's past (or easy classification) and prove that the SFA still have what it takes (which in their case is a lot more than most) even after a decade, with not one duff album in the bunch. I look forward to their next.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:53 AM EDT
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