Now Playing: Stereolab--"The Emergency Kisses"
It's time to start cooking regularly again, and I really can't figure out where to start. There's just so much information out there, and so many different cuisines, that I suffer serious overload just trying to think about it. One thing I definitely want to do is become more familiar with my own "native cuisine," which, as it's that of southern Louisiana, fortunately happens to be one of the most famous and celebrated in America, if not the world. My own personal culinary history, certainly as reported on this blog over the years, has ranged from Italian fish dishes (merluzzo livornese) to standard French classics (vichysoisse), offbeat Basque fish stews (marmitako), Hungarian work castoffs (paprikasz), intriguing Caribbean variations (habanero and lime black bean chili), disappointing Caucasian misfires (Circassian chicken), versatile Mexican dressings (green mole sauce) and West African-influenced comfort food (sweet potato and peanut stew). From reading that back, I haven't really ventured "east of Suez" and it's a pity, though a friend's encouragement has recently inspired me to investigate the culinary traditions of maritime Southeast Asia and combine my love of cooking with some of my bygone academic interests. I also need to get a serrated knife and a grill, and then I'll be ready for summer. Watch this space!
Armide (1777): Christoph Willibald Gluck was one of the most successful and well-known composers of the mid-eighteenth century, laying the foundations for the transformation of orchestral music--opera in particular--that contemporaries and successors like Haydn and especially Mozart and Beethoven would carry to the next level (Mozart took Gluck as something of a mentor during his years in Paris). An immigrant to France from the Austrian Empire, he became the toast of the ancien regime and the focus of a famously bitter struggle between his supporters and those of the more conservative Italian opera composer Niccolo Piccinni during the 1780s (there's a great writeup on the tussle in Claude Manceron's hugely entertaining micro-history of pre-Revolutionary France--I think it's in Twilight of the Old Order). His most famous operas were probably Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Iphigenia en Aulide (1774), but he considered Armide one of his best, and it today remains a relatively little-known work, all the more remarkable as it took some stones to produce. An earlier version of Armide (based on events and characters in the sixteenth century Italian poet Torquato Tasso's epic Gerusalemme Liberata) had been produced in the reign of Louis XIV by Jean-Baptiste Lully, one of the great exemplars, along with playwrights like Racine, of the Sun King's rigidly classical approach to the arts. As such, it was considered a national treasure by the French intelligentsia. I don't know what a modern equivalent might be--filming Catcher In The Rye, maybe? At any rate, Armide is rarely produced, from what I know. This made it an all the more intriguing destination for a Friday evening, as the University of Michigan Opera Theatre was producing it as their winter opera (they did Il Nozze di Figaro in the fall). I was pretty stoked, as they usually do the old chestnuts (understandably enough, as you're likely to get a bigger audience)--the year before they did La Traviata (which I got to see) and La Boheme (which is hardly one of my favorites anyway). Armide was as likely a choice as John Adams' Nixon in China. I was fairly unfamiliar with this period of opera--Mozart's stuff isn't quite in the same category--and it would definitely be interesting to check it out. As it happened, it was pretty fabulous, with something for everyone. Armide (Kristin Eder), a warrior-sorceress, is constantly frustrated by the bravery of Christian paladin Renaud (Willis Berne D. Bote) and decides to ensorcel him once and for all so that his defenses will be lowered and she can close in for the kill. Unfortunately, she falls in love with him and can't follow through. Renaud's posse shows up and frees him from Armide's porntastic witchery (the near-balletic moments as Renaud's beset by the welcome eye-candy of "the pleasures" fairly typical of opera during this period, from what I remember), as Armide meditates on the tragic nature of her exposure to love. There's more to the plot than that, but that's the basic structure, with generous dollops of comedy and drama. The occasionally sinister plot gets a wonderful counterpoint in the sprightly, high-Classical music (Gluck was pretty much at the mid-point between Baroque and Romantic). Some fantastically simplistic set design was enhanced by brilliant lighting, conveying mood along with the music and acting. The moments when Armide gets ready to cast a spell were superb, especially in Act 3 when she summons demons to get rid of Renaud--the whole thing's a perfect riot of music, color, and atmosphere, and the tension between Armide and "Hate" is gorgeously erotic. The cast is great, but Eder's especially good in the lead role, and some of this two-and-a-half-centuries-old extravaganza can seem amusingly modern--some of the translated libretto (when Armide and company cajole the powers of Hell) sounds like it would have fit on my co-worker's metal CDs. It was a great night out, and hopefully its success will encourage the Opera Theatre to program some more lesser-known works!
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007): The Oxford History of the United States, originally planned out by the late, great C. Vann Woodward and carried on by David M. Kennedy, has now swelled to several volumes, at present covering 1763-1865 and 1929-2000. My first exposure to it was James M. McPherson's magnificent Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), certainly the best single-volume history of the Civil War and, for my money, one of the best non-fiction books ever written (as history, Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 comes close in its unusual chronological sweep). Since then, I've read the other volumes in the series, none of which really come close to the first, though they're all excellent in their own way. Howe's entry was the last on my list, and it's probably the most engaging since McPherson's, thanks to some sprightly writing and interesting idiosyncrasies. It also helps, surprisingly, that this period of U.S. history has, westward expansion aside, always bored me. I never knew that anyone could make stuff like the "transportation revolution" and the Second Great Awakening interesting, but Howe manages and then some (his background as a cultural historian helps especially with the latter). What Hath God Wrought treats one of the most important eras in our history in a near binary opposite manner to the chronologically similar The Rise of American Democracy, by Sean Wilentz, which covers the Election of 1800 to the Civil War. Whereas Wilentz is a mostly unabashed partisan of Andrew Jackson (with understandable scolding for policies like the barbaric "Indian Removal"--also known as the "Trail of Tears"--during the 1830s), Howe focuses his admiration on Jackson's frequent foe, the presidentially hapless John Quincy Adams, who bracketed his rather lackluster presidency (1825-29) on both sides with immense achievements, first as James Monroe's Secretary of State (1817-25) and then as a Massachusetts Congressman and national conscience (1831-48), promoting civil liberties, moderate abolitionism, and minority rights, famously assisting the legal case of the Amistad mutineers in 1841. Howe sees Adams--and the "National Republicans" and Whigs he represented--as the prophet of an American future devoted to reasoned political participation, commerce, and self-improvement, rather than the mass Jeffersonian Republicanism largely espoused by Jackson. As for the latter, our seventh president (whose presence on the $20 bill, as Howe wryly observes, is rather ironic as he abhorred paper money) built much of his career on being a rough diamond, and Howe takes that image and runs with it in terms of negative criticism (in opposition, it must be stressed, to much of the American historical consensus, which saw--and sees--"Jacksonian democracy" as an unalloyed good), especially in terms of white supremacy being a fundamental pillar of his political beliefs. Howe juggles all the explosive trends and developments of the period admirably, devoting equal time to politics, economics, and culture (with interesting emphases--he makes an explicitly and personally religious statement late in the book that doesn't seem inappropriate in the context of religion's importance in that period of American history*). Many of the reviews I've read focus on the similarities between the 1830s and 2000s, with Jackson offering more than a few parallels with Bush in terms of executive lawlessness and character flaws (acknowledged by Howe, who gets one bit of snark in about nineteenth-century "weapons of mass destruction"). At the end of the aughties, though, I found myself much more interested in the contrast between Jacksonian economic lassitude and the "internal improvements" (mostly in terms of transportation and infrastructure--canals, roads, and later railways) generally espoused by the Whigs. That's instantly relevant; what else is a bill like the Affordable Care Act than an updated internal improvement? An ambitious, government-assisted policy to better the lives of all citizens through an improvement in infrastructure? Sounds pretty familiar. It's interesting to note--implicitly in Howe, and I unsurprisingly agree--that the Democratic Party in the early twenty-first century have essentially assumed the mantle of the Whigs, and the Republicans (initially made up--in their inspiring and now wholly forsaken infancy--of politically homeless Whigs, renegade antislavery Democrats, and abolitionists) have inherited all the worst aspects of Jacksonian "Democracy." The debates in print and in Congress demonstrate further similarities. On the one hand, it's comforting to know that little really changes; but on the other, it's also a little depressing (my own previous historical parallel to the present situation, especially in the media, was the 1790s, but I'm starting to think the war between Jackson and the Whigs fits it better). For my money, Howe does an exemplary job at one of history's most important duties--fulfilling and enriching our knowledge while sparking critical thought about the present and future.
Predator (1987): The popularity of Austrian Death Machine at work has generated a whole new level of glory--that will presumably seem delusional to California residents--for the former Terminator, one that finally inspired me to see his work alongside that of another future governor in John McTiernan's storied action-horror-scifi flick. Dutch (Ahnuld) leads a team of U.S. Green Berets or Special Forces (it was unclear, at least to me) into a dangerous rescue mission in an unnamed Latin American country (given the time of the movie's release, "Shmicaragua" sounds pretty apt), including the monstrous, MTV-T-shirted Blain (Jesse Ventura)--it struck me later that Blain could be the "cool uncle" of Andrew McCarthy's character in Pretty In Pink. Dutch's old pal Dillon (Carl Weathers) tags along, and it quickly becomes clear that things aren't as they seem, especially when the team is targeted by a mysterious assailant who proves more than a match for the Free World's frontline. I wasn't expecting it to be bad, exactly, but it was quite a gripping little film, actually more akin to Aliens than Rambo, although a number of similarities with the latter kept surfacing (especially the "dying extras filmed lovingly flying through the air in slow motion" and "in the big battle, show every single hut in the village exploding in closeup" motifs). John McTiernan, at the start of a career that would include Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October--arguably ushering in the next big era in blockbuster movies that Star Wars started a decade earlier--has a much surer grasp of things than Rambo's George P. Cosmatos, and parts of the film are almost contemplative at times (he also makes excellent use of the gorgeous Mexican locations). Some of the lines are pretty cringeworthy--Ventura actually says "it's payback time"--but, as an Amazon reviewer also pointed out, Predator--like Rambo--was one of those films that basically enshrined many of the action film cliches later movies (like, I'm told, McTiernan's own The Last Action Hero) would so mercilessly parody. Schwarzenegger probably had one of his best roles here--there are lots of action shots and face-acting closeups, and limited dialogue, although in the latter he does pretty much hold his own with Weathers. The final third of the film essentially consists of his private war with the Predator, the latter superbly realized both in the story and with Stan Winston's creature design. The parallel between the Predator's lifestyle and that of Dutch's men is made somewhat clumsily but effectively, and it's refreshing to see R.G. Armstrong still going strong by the late 1980s as the American military advisor to the "Shmicaraguans." Best of all, the closing credits start out with a sidesplittingly jokey series of comedy "bows" from the supporting cast, agreeable proof that Predator is an action flick that doesn't take itself too seriously; I have a surprising amount of defensive goodwill for this movie, and make no apologies.
*That is, it's not ethically inappropriate; the specific argument, on the other hand, struck me as pretty bizarre. He essentially makes the point that "God works in mysterious ways," and that California's falling prey to American expansionism in the Mexican War, though the result of greed and near-piracy, resulted in a greater good by enabling the United States to defeat Japanese aggression in the Pacific during the Second World War. The conquest of California certainly ensured a greater American presence in the Pacific, but then it's arguable that said greater American presence helped to drive the development of imperial Japan into an expansionist power in the first place. Still, in context, it's a fairly microscopic quibble in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking work.