31 August 1998

Big Hair in Beverly Hills

"THE JEWISH JOADS" IS THE POIGNANT PHRASE Tamara Jenkins applies to the itinerant Abramowitz clan in Slums of Beverly Hills. "The story has a large autobiographical aspect," the hyper writer-director says of the 1976-set comedy of a 16-year-old girl's sexual awakening that incorporates a gold mine of insecurity, neurosis and class conflict. "What we discovered is that even though the streets were lined with gold, we still didn't have any. The whole context of growing up on the outskirts of Beverly Hills in a motherless household, that's my own history. I always wanted to mine the period in which I grew up there as the first movie I made."

Jenkins, a former performance artist in New York, moved on to make short films at NYU's graduate program, and made her mark when they were shown at Sundance. Her background may be what emboldened her to make the tonal shifts from comedy to drama in the often appallingly detailed nightmare of Vivian's nomadic adolescence. There are laugh-out-loud scenes, but Jenkins has made a tragedy in sheepish clothing. She expresses at least mild concern about how the film will be perceived. "The whole need to categorize things as comedy or drama, it happens without it necessarily being your intention. Nothing that's a hybrid is properly perceived in the world of marketing, although that's the kinds of thing that I like."

The casting of the movie is particularly adept, a roster of memorably fidgety performers. As Vivian, Natasha Lyonne is a voluble presence, a wisenheimer diva with the amused-by-life smile of either a preternaturally wise person or a lunatic. Alan Arkin is as mesmerizingly intense as ever as her divorced father, along with pot-addicted overachieving teenage brother (David Krumholtz) and a cranky little brother (Eli Marienthal). Then there's Marisa Tomei as Rita, a cousin just escaped from drug rehab. Jenkins says she was casting for dramatic chops more than comedic ones. "Sometimes you're talking to an actor who says, 'It's supposed to be funny, right?' and you go, yeah, but you don't know you're in a scene. You're just experiencing life. The characters in this film are not walking around saying, 'Hey, we're in a comedy so we have to act like we're in a comedy.' Too many movies, actors seem to be doing that."

Natasha Lyonne, hair piled high, face filled with fleeting expressions and instants of adolescent terror, is simply remarkable. But, Jenkins says, "When her name was mentioned to me when I was looking all over the place for an actress to play Vivian, I said, oh no, she is totally wrong, based on Everyone Says I Love You. Her performance was really mannered in that movie. Then I met her and her actual human-beingness, I was very interested." Lyonne was game. "She was sick of playing daughters. She's at an age she wants to be a grown-up already. She was 18 when we made the movie, and I told her, look at [Truffaut's] 400 Blows and she became really excited at the power of following someone at a young age which she had discredited as dumb girl stuff. I wanted an adolescent survival story less than a story about mortification." Jenkins says she was following her muse more than any other filmic influence. "There weren't any movies whose tone I was borrowing from. I love Billy Wilder, who plays with tone, movies like The Apartment. A combination of dark and light like that would be something I would aspire to."

Several times in the story, the Abramowitzes move from one apartment to another in the middle of the night. "These tacky apartment houses in Beverly Hills have all these names like 'The Paradise' and 'The Capri' that promise this life of leisure. But they're like California tenements, but with this fake fanciness. Living on the edge of wealth gives you a kind of inferiority complex, which is true of the whole family, especially her father. But I was interested in how much that mirrored the inferiority a 15-year-old girl like Vivian already felt."

The offhandedness of Jenkins' depiction of Vivian's tribulations makes them even more pungent. When her racy cousin Rita joins the clan, Vivian has an older female figure to learn from, even if a slightly deranged and truly loose one. One scene between them is particularly rich, a gleeful dance they share to "We Got The Bump" where Rita and Vivian are tossing a vibrator around; gee, wouldn't it be awful if dad walked in on that? "There was no privacy. Female coming of sexual age is very public, particularly if you have breasts and there is something the world can scrutinize. The world starts treating you differently while you're straddling girlhood and adulthood. You don't have the manual for dealing with it, yet you're walking around with all this hardware."

Jenkins makes extensive use of body doubles for sight gags, and other devices as well. "Natasha has small breasts, so we gave her breasts. The fact that we had to give her breasts was like the prefect experience. She got these prosthetic silicone-y packet things that go under your bra. They move, they're very real. When Natasha got them, she was like, 'These are great! These are so great! I've always wanted these!' I said, look, I don't even know what your thoughts about them are, I want you to go out into the world and function with these. She came back, 'Okay, I get it now.' She had to experience Vivian's adolescence in a day, that very specific thing about being sexualized because of the size of something you had nothing to do with."

01 August 1998

Circling π with Darren Aronofsky

CYBERPUNK LIVES AND THRIVES IN DARREN ARONOFSKY'S π, a relentless, pulsating paranoid thriller about chaos, Kabbalah, Wall Street and the elegance of numbers. The 28-year-old American Film Institute graduate, who won the director's award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, found his $60,000 high-contrast black-and-white film the subject of a bidding war, and it went to Artisan Entertainment for over a million dollars. the self-avowed "science fiction guy" says the movies in his head are of far greater scale than the usual indiefilm "vision." Aronofsky has burst boldly from the indie scene with a $600,000 pay-or-play deal through Miramax's Dimension films to direct Proteus," a big-budget historical sci-fi thriller that takes place on an American submarine during World War II. (He and his co-writer got $300,000 up front against a $600,000 back-end price for their screenplay as well.) Another deal has been announced for Aronofsky to adapt Frank Miller's DC samurai comic Ronin for New Line either before or after Proteus; that writing-directing deal could go as high as $1.3 million. A big leap for a director who cut his entire crew in for substantial shares of the producers' profits--in the once-unlikely case there would ever be any.

Entering his Chicago hotel room, I find the hyper Aronofsky bent over his brand new Mac G3 laptop, perusing the intricate website for the film (www.pithemovie.com) designed by its star, Sean Gullette. The website contains selections drawn from Aronofsky's effervescent shooting diary, including the rules he abided by for his production draft of the script.

In π Max Cohen (Gullette) is about to have a breakthrough and a breakdown, as ten years of work seem about to reveal a numerical pattern running under the stock markets, the ultimate system of ordered chaos. While there's a Wall Street firm ready to kill for their formula, so is a Kabbalah sect who believes that Max's work will unlock their ancient holy texts and bring on the end of the world.

Before telling his crew they'd get potentially worthless points, how did motivate them, how did he explain this story? "It's about God, math and bad-ass Jews," he says, laughing. "My twenty-four words or less when I had to use that was it's a sci-fi thriller about a renegade mathematician searching for numerical order in the New York Stock Exchange. I didn't mention anything about the Kabbalah. Now I might say it's a ninety-minute roller coaster ride about the meaning of life. It is hard to describe."

While there are resemblances to earlier movies such as Welles' The Trial, Aronofsky is more likely to cite Frank Miller's graphic novels and the writing of Philip K. Dick and Rod Serling. "Story-story-story" is at the core of movies that he likes. "The bottom line is that 'π' is a thriller, a chase movie. That's why I don't like comparisons to 'Eraserhead.' They look similar, maybe, but Lynch's film is totally expressionistic and doesn't have a narrative. I'm a total narrative junkie. That's what I aspire to—well-made stories. Stories that actually move. I want my 90 minutes of distraction, I want my 90 minutes of taking a roller coaster ride. That was the core. π had to have a thriller before I could add any of the esoteric material."

I wondered what Miramax's Bob Weinstein and New Line's Michael DeLuca had responded to in π. "I think it's a better question to ask Bob Weinstein, what they saw in the film was, at least what they told me, they liked the way that I was able to bring together all the different elements of filmmaking, from sound, to editing, cinematography, and tie it all into a cohesive piece of work. For me, filmmaking is a full sensory experience so every single element I try and tie into the narrative. When you come up with an idea, you talk to your friends about it, They say, 'I just read something about that,' then you go, 'Oh!' and check that out. That's how it happens. It's all about communication. All the ideas are out there. There are no original ideas, there are only original ways of dealing with story."

While exploiting mathematical history, Aronofsky says that "ultimately it's not a math movie. The math [in our story] is the cool math. This is a mad scientist story, a retelling of the Frankenstein myth for the digital age. Instead of the monster, we have Euclid, Max's supercomputer." Aronofsky is keen to admit he draws inspiration from any source he can. "For me, writing is a jigsaw puzzle. I take things I think are cool or experiences that are very interesting, things I've read, I try to shuffle the deck, make my own mixture that becomes my movie out of everything I've experienced."

But it always comes back to story. "Everything has to tie into the essential theme, and if doesn't you need to cut it away. Everything has to have a core of what the film is about, but once you tie in all into a theme, as many different pieces as you can throw in is a good thing." He sees π as "an extremely commercial movie," pointing out the worldwide bestsellers "The Celestine Prophecy" and "Bible Codes," a book about Kabbalah. "I think everyone is interested in themes that are covered in π, and that is the star of our movie, the concepts. Since we crawled out of the primordial soup, we've asked why are we here, what's the meaning of life, is there a god, what is God, who is God, where is God, that is the core and essence of 'π.' I think audiences around the world are going to dig that."

What were the inspirations that go him this far. "Definitely seeing the success of American independent films. That you can just go out and do it. When you get Robert Rodriguez's story, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, you know you can do it. We wanted to make a comic book, paranoid sci-fi film. That was always the goal. The first cyberpunk movie."

25 June 1998

Learning to Fly: The Making of Blackbird

On any night late in the week, an aerial view of the broad esplanade of Randolph Street's reupholstered market mile will reveal the antlike crawl of restaurant row traffic, gathering and disgorging clusters of the peckish and moneyed. There is the dance of car hikes and taxis and speed-walking pedestrians along the stretch just west of the Kennedy Expressway. Even when the faces aren't pretty, most of the clothes are.

A local magazine with a prodigious inferiority complex Second-Citied this ever-bustling stretch of eat-and-be-seen real estate as "The future SoHo of Chicago." But if you want to effectively extend that belittling metaphor, move east, out of the mosh pit of graying diners, past the white-noise whishhh of the expressway until you come upon a pristine storefront, a glass facade with almost no detail in the only occupied building for a few blocks. Through the doors, a crowd eats within a minimalist Edward Hopper canvas that is marked by flattering highlights instead of grasping shadows. You would have to say that Blackbird is its own standalone TriBeCa, a small, fresh ripple in Chicago's tireless dining scene.

Blackbird, which sounds utterly midwestern, draws its name from the Merlot grape (in French, "blackbird" is "merle"; "merlot" is a nickname for a young, small one). Open since late November, the seventy-seat storefront has not suffered in any of its reviews, particularly those from outside the city. Qantas flew a correspondent from the Financial Times, London's equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, around the world to immerse himself in the newest restaurants, and Blackbird was among the eight chosen. In the May 30 edition, lucky correspondent Ian Holmes wrote of chef-co-owner Paul Kahan's work: "With clean flavors, strong taste-texture combinations and palatable prices, this food is the most sought after in the city."

Taking things for granted is taken for granted nowadays. Questions are seldom asked about the succession of actions, the chain that delivers a good meal to the table. How can momentary, faddish "heat" translate into durability? Few restaurants thrive, mature, last. A 1992 Cornell University hotel school study asserted that half of all new restaurants are gone without three years. Media puff announces the new sensaysh and hangs its first menu out to dry. Reviewers seem compelled to convey "heat" more than the fire that gets a restaurant off the ground and keeps it running. A skein of randomly assembled phrases from Blackbird's sheaf of mouth-watering clips: "Trendsetters are flocking... The local glitterati... Chic-chic... hot-hot... one haute spot... a sea of expensive and mostly black clothing... the bartender, dressed in black (naturally)...”

Heat. The gossip columns have sprinkled the usual run of celebrities—Michael Jordan, Billy Corgan and Cindy Crawford—but the visits from other chefs are the celebs Blackbird celebrates. General manager and co-owner Donnie Madia quotes one of his restaurateur drop-ins as saying, "The city doesn't need more restaurants, it needs more restaurants like this." His eyes grow little-boy big as he lists the likes of Kahan's fromer bosses Rick Bayless and Erwin Drechsler; Charlie Trotter coming by a couple weeks earlier with members of his staff; and other local luminaries such as Michael Foley, Michael Kornick from Marche, Gabbino Sotelino from Ambria, Francois Kwaku-Dongo from Spago. And he's particularly heartened by the customers regularly referred to Blackbird by Spago's Klaus and Amanda Puck.

More heat: At 8pm the following Saturday after the Financial Times plaudit, after the raves in the Tribune, Sun-Times, Chicago magazine and other outlets, there are walk-ins, but even with cancellations, they are disappointed. There's no room left even at the bar until the kitchen closes at 11:30.

Highlighter lines fill the ledger page. Madia doesn't want to tempt his luck, but admits that Thursday through Saturday is booked solid for the coming six weeks, and Monday through Wednesday gets booked up by the day before. Weekend reservations are taken three to four months in advance.

Madia ponders about what the restaurant should be, unconsciously evoking another Second City-ism. It should be like "some corner you turn fifteen years ago in Manhattan, then there this is." But that's hard to find even there now, so maybe this patch of Randolph is the last frontier.

Ghost signs float in the urban gloom outside the sheet of glass. Golden numbers advertise the square footage of some since-demolished office building: 52,000. Only part of a second sign can be read: "City Of..." No one takes in the faded horizon from the dining room. The room is a sleek marvel when it's empty, but when filled, it melts away in the hum of conversation and the air filled with the smell of good food. Architect and interior designer Thomas Schlesser says, "Everyone put in a tremendous amount of effort to make this place. But if there was no great chef, it would only be a style experiment instead of what it's supposed to be: a backdrop to a great dining experience."

"We're only a few minutes behind," another employee says. "Nothing we don't expect. If we had this kind of crowd—people who are ready to eat, people who the word's just trickled down to—when we first opened? We might have been nervous."

A couple beam out the front door, grabbing Madia's hand. "Y'know, from the second you walk in here, you're transported into another world." He takes the compliment, whatever it means, as the couple are framed against the glass, the faded signs, the balconies from a nearby condo-fication.

"Wow, this is the most intense crowd we've had in here in a while," Kahan says, making another round of the small room. An Italian freelance photographer drops in with an assignment fax and a copy of his magazine and negotiates in broken English for getting the lights up, which would still the room like last call. It's a tough decision: international publicity at the price of disturbing tonight's diners?

Two men are talking at the bar. "If you come with me to San Francisco, I can think of a million places like this... but not."

Once upon a time, a couple weeks after I had a memorable birthday dinner at erwin, where Kahan was chef de cuisine, I ran into him late one night in a local saloon. He told me an intricate, step-by-step story about how to make osso bucco. I wish I had remembered it with all its lived-in details and loving, specialized language. It was the poetry of process, the joy of someone who knows their work talking it up: the language of the chef. I said that if he ever got a place of his own, I'd want to know about it. I'd want to write about it but I'd want to eat there, early and often. He shrugged and laughed.

The same conversation was going on elsewhere as well.

In Kahan's familiar telling, he was hitchhiking through California years ago when he stumbled upon Chez Panisse. Paul Kahan was Saul on the road to Provence, or at least Berkeley, where he discovered the cooking of Alice Waters, described simply by food writer Marian Burros as "the mother of modern American cooking," for her philosophy of concentrating on local ingredients while bringing French country influences to her work. Back in Chicago, Kahan first worked under Erwin Drechsler at Metropolis Cafe, and later with Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill/Topolobampo as sous chef. When Drechsler opened erwin on Halsted, Kahan moved there.


Madia's first job as a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade shows in his back-and-forth manner on the floor at the restaurant, juggling details with a ready smile. Later, he managed China Club, then worked as a restaurant manager for Big Time Productions, supervising OO-LA-LA and Vinyl. He had met another of the partners, bar manager Ricky Diarmit, from an earlier bartending job, and began to search for a space, a chef, investors.

Each partner had distinct strengths that now dovetail nicely on the floor, orchestrating an experience with bubbling enthusiasm. But Madia didn't yet know Kahan. "I never knew Paul, but always enjoyed his food," he says. "My girlfriend at the time said, 'Wouldn't it be great if you could get the chef?' We were at brunch there one Sunday, and it was great, and Paul comes out, he's cooked a double shift, he worked Saturday night and brunch, he was tired, eyes drooping, all beat up. 'That's the chef?'" he remembers. "Boy, I could see he worked hard."

About the time Kahan came on board, they found the beat-down space on Randolph, an island unto itself a few hundred yards from the bustle of the burgeoning restaurant scene to the west. Kahan and Madia both recollect similar sentiments—every person who had responded enthusiastically to their hopes for an ambitious restaurant of their own was in for a call. How can you help us piece this place together?

”We're gonna owe everybody," Kahan said one September afternoon last year. This Saturday cocoa powder hangs wetly in the gloomy afternoon air. Two months before opening and the gutted storefront on Randolph reeks of lumber, and tufts of sawdust scatter underfoot. The overwhelming waft is of construction, not concoction or confection. No fresh pepper or garlic, just an overwhelmingly clean plywood smell in a room buttressed by stacked sheets of drywall, their UL Surface Burning Characteristics still showing.

Madia and Kahan have unfurled plans atop plywood frameworks, showing how designer Thomas Schlesser's long lines and lazy angles will keep the room from the dreaded "bowling alley" effect.

The rest of Randolph is lined with temples of grandeur. Schlesser's style is sparse, but not spartan, working with mostly neutral colors and a spatial complexity in a restrained environment. Schlesser, who just left a position at Landahl Design Studio as a senior architectural designer to sound out opportunities in New York, designed the restaurant Vinyl, among other undertakings. "Space is a key preoccupation with me. The challenge was to take the relatively small space of a few thousand square feet, this typical Chicago long, narrow space confined with brick walls and create a restaurant space. There's always a high level of abstraction to what I do, but the partners had seen Vinyl, liked things I'd done there restraint, clarity of space and form."

The result is a sparse look without the usual trappings. "I didn't use curtains or any of the other clichés you see in restaurants in this city."

Some food critics have made the familiar plaints about the proximity of tables to one another, but Schlesser says, "It seems crowded, but getting all the things [into this building] was really successful. Every square foot has worked out effectively. There's not much [room] to start with when you have to have a kitchen capable of the quality they produce and a bar that can keep up with the customers." He also emphasizes how perspective changes in different parts of the room. "The long banquette [that diners are seated along] has a sculptured quality; it's like an upholstered wall. Then the overhang gives the illusion of a private niche; the ceilings are twelve feet high."

Pointing details from the renderings, Kahan jokingly calls the banquettes and the overhang "total design overkill" but is putting in long days and nights to get to the point where it can be installed. Pitching in with the construction work is a double-time job, different from the months of planning and waiting for approvals and licenses and inspections. Kahan flexes uncomfortably. "You know how the chicken leg cracks when you break it off? That's how my shoulder feels.

"We're pulling out super-expensive stuff wherever we can. None of us are sacrifice guys [when it comes to quality]. At least fifty people who have helped to the nth degree. It's crunch time, now, though." The universe of permits and inspections prompt some worry. (I ran into Kahan on Halloween, after the ghoulish adventure of the group making their last submissions for a liquor license.) But for now the walls are still scrawled with everyone's phone number.

"Like our phone book?" Kahan chuckles. "We're covering it up today." But takeout menus are stabbed to the wall for now in the space where the restaurant's single bit of decor, a painting of a splash of orange with a small blackbird nesting in its warmth, will rest later. The only color today comes from scattered paintball scars from games that will have to stop.

We move upstairs, where a party room and lounge will open sometime later in 1998. There are piles of cookware, glassware, cases of wine to be sampled. We talk about the 130 bottles of wine Kahan, acting as his own sommelier, wants on his menu, amid sacks of sealant and big tool chests and nail guns.

Kahan had been collecting for ten years in hopes of opening his own restaurant one day. "I had this accumulating in a bedroom for years. Just the best stuff. It's important to me. I've cooked with crappy warped cookware, and I've cooked with good cookware, and there's no choice, it's like using good ingredients. I'm kind of a gearhead about this stuff. All my sauce pans are from this Italian company Paderno. There's a copper disc in the bottom to warm quickly. Everything I bought? Is guaranteed for life. A set of all-clad sauté pans can cost $2,000.

“We could've bought thirty-dollar bistro chairs for the room, which might have been either incredibly smart or incredibly simple," he continues. "Thomas designed this Eames-style chair, a silver base with a comfortable back, the same mahogany stain as the floor. So we're saving money but spending a lot, too." Still, there are cost restraints. "Now I've gone through this, when people go into a restaurant and question markup, I want to kill them." We stand at the front entrance. "Just the door fittings, that's twenty-five dollars times three. A door like at Spago is $2,000. Its like ching-ching-ching." He runs his hand where the door handle will be. "A two-hundred-dollar rounded piece of stainless top-to-bottom door pull right there."

What’s the hoped-for payoff? "Bouley or Soltner from Lutece, those two guys, I could be anywhere close to them, that would be great. I want to have my hand on everything. It'll be hard but with only sixty-five seats, it'll work. I'm gonna be here all the time. I've resigned myself to the first year."

Dinner the first week of this year, the tumult has begun. Despite being prohibited, cell phones were on tabletops all around. The crowd was talking about the food at other restaurants, not having caught up to the teeming plates before them, flanks and planks and chunks of wood-charcoal-grilled goodness. Blackbird has had a liquor license only since New Year's Eve, when liquor wholesalers were trucking in all day, from 9am to 9pm, up the stairs, down the stairs. We order wine suggested by another partner, headwaiter Eduard Seitan. Kahan circulates, insists that we try his squab salad, "absolutely my favorite bird on the planet."

I ask about a particular wave of bouquet and Kahan points to the stockpot, which boils twenty-four hours a day. Here is the essential of why you cannot, shall not do this at home, why a restaurant can sneak into each ingredient a quiet marinade, spice or douse. "It takes two or three days reduction for demi-glacé," he says. "It takes fifty pounds of veal bones just to start." The chicken stock takes the same effort, round the clock.

One Saturday last month, I watch the workings of Blackbird from opening to closing. At 11am, the reservations are confirmed. If anyone cancels, patrons from the waiting list get on. "We do ninety-five percent reservations," Madia says. "We really work not to overbook the room." Fifteen to eighteen tables get turned in each time slot. The morning tang of mop gives way to single ingredients being prepared. A chicken and wild rice soup's on the menu that everyone's trying, a French-tasting broth with hints of lime leaves, ginger, leeks, cilantro. Every time you talk to Kahan about one of his dishes, he knows only his uncertainties, what he's going to change. He's disappointed in the soup. I linger over it.

In the basement "where all the unsexy work goes on," a Cubs game plays in the background. Little minces of red bell pepper pile up like edible Legos. Potatoes, small as toys, rest in glistening piles. A festively colored halibut ceviche is prepared for tonight's "amuse," the small taste brought to table while customers look over the menu.

Upstairs, as the afternoon lengthens, it's a different room. The sleek, neutral blank awaits rows of faces. It all seems to reflect the modest shrug Kahan often gives when complimented. "We're trying." It isn't like clockwork, it is clockwork. 3:30 now. The phone begins to burble.

Ingredients sizzle in the open kitchen. Tom Denney, sous chef, formerly of Soul Kitchen and erwin, where he met Kahan, is caramelizing rutabagas and the room bursts with the smell of shallots hitting the pan. "It's gonna be like this all the way until service," he says. He's had a bruising earlier, but life goes on.

At 4:30, servers are given a taste of the "amuse" and new mango and orange sorbets. The ceviche is wedged between two thin slices of cucumber, with a taste of orange on top, drizzled with oil. A silver Audi is parked in front. The driver is calling in on her cell phone to attempt an 8pm reservation. Ah, it's too late. "But how would late-late be for you?"

Downstairs, Kahan throws in a technique here, there, as he passes through. He pauses from tying off a trash bag to show how to neatly slice a seven-ounce halibut filet. One task at a time, all dovetailing. He takes out the pâté for the charcuterie plate, a mixture of duck livers, pork, prunes, cognac, aging in the walk-in. Blackbird cures their own meats, makes their sausage and pâté, always work toward the next day, the next, the next.

Now it's time to open a sealed can of Maine divers' scallops in a sealed can like house paint comes in, without preservative, "You could eat 'em just like that," Kahan says, holding up one of the sweet-smelling, dumpling-size scallops. The pastry chef chats up an experimental banana cake while an intern demurely cleans sweetbreads.

One of the waiters is joking around. Kahan looks up from showing how to peel fava beans and says, laughing, "Jason is a billionaire in the making."

"Then I'll buy Blackbird," he says.

"Great," Kahan says, chuckling. "Bring in the new chef. Set me free. In the shower this morning, I was actually singing old blues songs."

A little before 5pm. The sun begins to shift. From the street, the falling light turns the facade into a wall of white reflected light. Inside is a silvered mystery. The bartender, Nicole, busies herself behind the bar, singing annoying nursery songs while opera plays in the background. "The sun comes out when she walks," a busboy announces to no one in particular.

5:15pm. "This is the worst time of the night," a few minutes before opening. "It's the crunch. Are we all done?" Cars begin to pull up outside on their way to the expressway. What is this gleaming place? "We got five minutes, people," Madia announces, pushing his blond-and-silver hair back and up in a swell neo-Tintin swoop. Lights go down, the music up a little. Stage set, astonish me, please. "Good evening...!"

Behind the line, Denney deadpans, "I gave blood today." A server jokes, "Push the specials he's responsible for."

"Yeah," Denney says, "I bet you you cannot beat the record of sirloins sold on a Saturday night—forty-five! I bet you!" Denney pulls up his pants leg. "Look at this. I slipped back here and I was in mid-air like slow motion, [ital]this[end ital] high off the ground." He grits his teeth and returns to the flames. The bartender is whistling "This Old Man" as the music turns gentler, jazzier.

A little after 6pm. All but four tables are filled. "Friday is date night," Madia notes. "Saturday, earlier, older, moving toward hip and hipsters. We were still burgeoning at 11:30pm last Saturday."

Later, as you watch the tickets for hot dishes stack up, touches of temper surface and drop. It's amazing how many ingredients are secreted into every crevice of the fourteen-foot area behind the line. If you are at work in a kitchen, you don't get to watch, enjoy the play of assembly in the manufacture of a meal.

Upstairs is hopping, but downstairs? Quiet as the pre-monster attack moments in an indifferent horror movie. Sheira Harris, the pastry chef, is fussing over variations on sorbet and tuille and powdered sugar even as feet pound overhead. "I like food that's just itself," she says. "I don't like geometric things, I want to enhance the qualities of the food." There are two illustrations over her station: one of a fancy pecan pie, the other of a big anthropomorphic snow man dessert. "They're both valid." She jabs a slice of tuille into the sorbet. "Just simple. There's not enough here to worry about elegant." The ten- and thirty-degree leans of the crisp tuille are like the design upstairs, not jarring, but soothing and swoopy.

Presentations succeeded by a good demolishing are another recurring characteristic, such as in Kahan's variation on the Lyonnaise salad, an endive salad incorporating the small Yukon gold potatoes I had seen earlier, with basil, rendered pancetta and poached egg, in a fried cup made from shaved Yukon golds. Truly coarse pepper is ground atop the egg and vinaigrette on greens, the entire confection waiting to be crushed by a few bold diagonal knife and fork strokes.

It's the kind of clean-tasting mix of textures that shows Kahan's sure hand with the possibility of fish, seafood and contrasting textures. Contrasts are essential to "simple, well-prepared American cuisine," Kahan says, and by focusing on fresh and seasonal ingredients, he can get the most from the simple contrast of flavors that are smoky, spicy, sweet or salty. A recent entrée addition is grilled capon breasts, about a ten-ounce half-breast on top of split, baby roasted turnips, with chunks of super-moist fresh porcini, sweet snap peas, topped with a roasted garlic vinaigrette with a hint of lemon. "Very focused, very clean," Kahan says, saluting an ideal. There's no pasta on this menu.

Brief, pungent waves of scent work throughout the evening. A ripple of oil carries across the room, then sautéed garlic, then seafood. "That's the soft-shell crabs," Diarmit says from behind the bar, and indeed, it is. "Can't keep 'em." On cue, a runner from the kitchen: One order of crabs left, strike 'em.

7:10. Now every table is filled, and there is no one waiting: Balance. Attention to detail as time allows. A customer is shocked when he's brought a new napkin when he's not even aware the first one’s fallen to the floor. Ten sauté pans are in the fire at once. Like a glimpse of a cutaway peering inside an internal combustion engine, even if a different sort of caloric power, firing on all cylinders.

7:40. The green and blue highlighter lines march steadily down the ledger page. It's a good night, I'm told, where all appears balletic and nothing ballistic, flurried yet seldom frantic. The customers keep their eyes before them, seldom looking toward the work behind the line in the open kitchen. It's what fascinates about any well-designed kitchen—repetitive motions in unpredictable succession. The assembly line, but one reliant on intuition and instant response.

The 8:45 crowd waltzes in, grayer succeeded by gayer. On line, pushing dishes toward the heat lamp, Denney leans his shaved head forward. "You know Brando? 'The horror, the horror.'" The server laughs, takes his plate. Domesticated and uneventful. Unless you are taking bites of the result. The table didn't see the Brando: they only have eyes for the California Sturgeon with fat Israeli couscous in the yogurt, cucumber and carrot-ginger sauce. The tempo of conversation shifts and the bar fills with latecomers who only want a glass of wine, to drink in the room. Sit at the bar, and you have a city view, best seat in the house. CITY OF... the sign trails off, ever unfinished from this perspective.

A fire pumper's flashing light briefly candies the all-too-photorealistic view, red and white gyrating. Nicole, the bartender, launches into a martini-shaking performance. There is a delicate balance a little out of whack. Tarriers at tables and latecomers make reservations slide a few minutes behind. Kahan's eyes are tired below his wild, curly hair, but he’s still quick to laugh. He circulates, gravity with a grin. "It's a nice mix of the goofballs and the serious foodies," he observes, neatly dividing the hipoisie from the otherwise privileged.

He takes a break a little later and we talk at the front door. So how does Kahan know when he’s added one flavor too many? "I've been doing this for so long it's just plain and simple. I combine three or four flavors together that work well and that's it. I don't think you can pick out anything that has three or four main flavors. I'm a simpleton, I guess. I don't like to eat, like, twenty different flavors. Stick with the classics."

Someone Kahan hasn't seen since high school says hello, asks him what he's doing, what's new. "Work,” he replies. “Work is new every day."

[Originally published in a slightly different form in Newcity, June 25, 1998]

01 June 1998

Whit Stillman at the disco ball


No one captures the comic contradictions of a certain kind of urban relationship quite like Whit Stillman.

Droll and playful, "Last Days of Disco" is deceptively structured, as nuanced and layered as a novel in behavioral filigree. As in "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona," Stillman makes his characters smart enough to dig themselves a hole but not always dig themselves out. Set, as an early title says, in "The Very Early 1980s," "Disco" follows the romantic roundelays of several friends just out of college and the people they meet in their publishing jobs and in their favorite club, an unnamed disco they treat as some kind of salon. They're kids, new to the city; they don't know their beloved disco music and hangout they've only just discovered are near their end. Stillman's familiar portraits of the group dynamics of the young and overly privileged are richer than ever, and their social cruelty ripples with bursts of extravagant verbal wit.

Stillman regular Chris Eigeman plays Des, one of the club's managers, and as always, manages to make abrasive verbosity almost seem cuddly. ("I'm not an addict," he says with total conviction, "I'm a habitual user.") He meets his match in Kate Beckinsale, as the mercurial, compulsive Charlotte, a ferocious, unrelenting manipulator who always speaks what's on her mindlessness. (Through Charlotte's outrageous self-justifications, Stillman shows himself a master of capturing exquisite bullshit as well.) As Alice, Charlotte's reluctant roommate and co-worker on the lower rungs of a prestigious publishing house, Chloe Sevigny is luminous. To call her a "natural," as some critics have, does a disservice to her fresh talent. She's been appealing in films such as "Kids" and "Palmetto," but the poignant gravity she brings to Alice, and her acute delivery of Stillman's dialogue mark her as someone to watch. The 46-year-old Stillman worked with what he calls "prosaic license" in writing his script. "There's a kind of reinvention of the wild, wild times in these clubs. We're really telling one civilian story. People who do go a lot and become part of the group, they know a guy who runs the back door, but they're not the wild downstairs VIP crowd."

During the editing of "Barcelona," Stillman became infatuated with his scenes of Tuschka Bergen and Mira Sorvino dancing in discotheques. "It reminded me of my period as a failed short-story writer, something I wanted to write about was that moment when people have their first jobs and they settle into a place. It took me about a year-and-a-half to earn enough money to find the worst apartment in New York and move out of home. I remember those first weeks of having your own apartment, a beautiful day like today in the spring, walking uptown and running into people all over. I thought that kind of new-kids-in-the-big-city daytime story could mix well with the disco story." He doesn't see his characters as being particular emblems of a certain class. "In this country, there's a broad class of people who've gone to universities. Wherever they started, they go through the mill and they come to the city and they get professional jobs, publishing jobs. There is a similarity as the people sort themselves out, but it's not necessarily about where they came from."

Stillman's self-aware characters could talk rings around Tarantino's; there is an instant classic of a scene where the characters take sides in bashing "Lady and the Tramp," unwittingly reflecting their own traits. A mention of Tarantino brings a smile. "I think 'Metropolitan' came out before 'Pulp Fiction.'" He laughs. "Instead of [making references to Jane Austin's] 'Mansfield Park,' the idea is now to get into territory that many people can relate to and support our larger budgets. It can't just be Lionel Trilling any more!" After seeing "Barcelona" go over the heads of a Brazilian audience, he decided to change tack just a little. "It's the kind of reference that works not only here, but everywhere. Even if it's a film in which there is some important talk, the talk should be about things people all over the world know about."

Unlike some contemporaries, Stillman takes his time writing a script. "The process is really bad in the sense that I don't feel suited to it. I feel much more comfortable editing. It's a tough process to get enough material so I can get into editing it. Woody Allen says that he gets these ideas going down the stairs from where he lives or walking and my wife has a picture of me sort of half-shaven, typing on my word processor. I started shaving, I got an idea...." He shrugs. "That's kind of how it works. Generally, it takes me so long to write a script that by the time that's done, there's financing. I've always had the financing way before the script. I've lost producers because they get tired of waiting!

"For me it's also really important to write with a fifteen year time lag," he adds. "That's another reason for the disco period. In 1994, fifteen years put me plonk in the middle of that period. I find I can't write about the present. Only through the past do you get through the mist of stuff you want to remember. And also I don't like all popular culture. When something happens in popular culture that I respond to, I want to hold onto that. It was one period that I thought was fun and interesting."

[Published in slightly different form in New City, June 1, 1998.]

09 March 1998

Coen job

I caught a glimpse of the Coen Brothers at a distributors' party at Sundance this year. (There had been a tribute to Joel's wife, Frances McDormand.) Joel had clamped on probably the best don't-fuck-with-me scowl I'd ever seen as he piled through the room. Talking to the two of them a few weeks later, their disingenuous finish-each-others'-sentences, joined-at-the-quip, self-amused chuckle-monkey behavior is kind of amusing, even when you play back the tape and find out just how little they've actually said.

"The Big Lebowski," set during the Gulf War, is a return to form for all of those who admire the Coens at their most sarcastic, where large men scream very loudly and jokes are pounded into the ground with vigor and brio. Jeff Bridges plays The Dude, aka Jeff Lebowski, a Los Angeles pot-stoking and White Russian-swilling seventies-style layabout mistaken for a millionaire of the same name. He'd rather be bowling with his buddies Donny (Steve Buscemi, never allowed to finish a sentence) and Walter (John Goodman, increasingly, indelibly insane as the story progresses). They're characters whose behavior never shifts, as nuts as cartoon characters comes to life. Goodman's Walter is a bullet-headed, barely contained titan of rage, running on the fumes of cracked beliefs and fierce garble-gabble. The resemblance to Raymond Chandler's convoluted plots and view of L.A. melts away under the barrage of splenetic rage that the pig-ignorant characters unleash on one another. (The bowling-fantasy musical number is another matter altogether.)

"The Chandler stuff is accurate," says tall, dour Joel. "Even specifically accurate in terms of some of the details of the movie. But it's much more of the case that we were thinking about Raymond Chandler in general. We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story, both in terms of how it moves, episodically, and dealing with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. But also in terms of the movie being about Los Angeles the way Chandler's are about L.A. I haven't read any recently, but we both read a lot of Chandler when we were kids."

It would seem that part of the attraction would also be the convolution and the inscrutability of the storytelling in both Chandler and the film, "The Big Sleep." "Yeah, exactly, "Joel says. "'The Big Sleep' was a hopelessly complicated plot, right. At bottom, the plots in Chandler are very unimportant. Very complex but very unimportant."

Ethan, shorter, shaggy-haired, adds, "But also there's something attractive about a main character who isn't a private eye but he's just this pothead that Jeff plays. There's something attractive about having him figure out intuitively the ins-and-outs of the elaborate intrigue." Pretty much, The Dude and Walter and company are guys who've learned about life from movies and TV. "Ahhhhhh. Yeah," Ethan ventures. "There's something about... right. The Dude smoked a lot of dope and had a lot of input."

Joel cuts in: "It's more of a case of him being a sponge for, y'know, the culture that he inhabits in general, the things that he's heard, that he regurgitates from previous scenes. That's filtered all through his sort of reefer haze." Ethan grins. "That's the fun of putting him at the center of the movie."

So is The Dude an archetypal Angeleno for the Bros? They swap looks. "The Dude is based on several people, including a member of an amateur softball league," Joel says, "but we changed it to bowling because bowling seemed so much more visually compelling and it's the kind of sport you can do while you're drinking and smoking. It's also very retro. The characters are all the product of an earlier time, and bowling in terms of design, particularly in L.A., and specifically an earlier L.A."

Both "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski" are set a few years back, almost-period pieces. "In the case of this one," Ethan says, "setting it at the time of the Gulf War is an opportunity to have Walter gas about something." Joel says, "That's it, that's really the reason." But Ethan continues. "Also... well, in the case of both movies, 'Fargo' is also set not present day, but almost present day, right, it's somehow almost more attractive to make the time specific somehow than just make it present day... "

"What is the present day?" Joel asks. Ethan says, "Yeah. It's completely unspecific." Speaking of the recent past, I wondered if the Oscar has been a help or a nuisance. Ethan says, "Well, who knows? You know real specifically how it figured as a nuisance but you don't know specifically what it gained you, since you don't know how easy it would be to raise money for the next movie absent that, so..." The grin again. "Nuisance! We're sure it was a nuisance, the gain we're not so sure about." Joel adds, "Yeah, y'know, I guess it's hard to tell." The tape degenerates into a volley of blurts and counter-blurts and a couple of giggles. Joel's voice rises from the din, "We were in the middle of this movie when all this stuff happened. It's a little bit distracting because everybody's breathing heavily about it while it's happening and it's strange when you're in the middle of making another movie and going to work every day. Beyond that?" They both shrug.

05 January 1998

Talking to Atom Egoyan about The Sweet Hereafter

There's an intricately detailed painting by Bruegel called "Children's Games," so dense with varieties of public experience that the scholar and translator Edward Snow has written an entire book deciphering its deceptive surfaces ("Inside Bruegel," North Point Press). He approvingly quotes Nietzsche on the concept of "slow reading": "to read well, that is, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and after, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers."
Atom Egoyan's ferociously sorrowful "The Sweet Hereafter," based on Russell Banks' novel, rewards that sort of contemplation, too, as it evokes a small Canadian mountain town in the winter calm of the weeks after fourteen children have died in a school-bus crash. Ian Holm is a city lawyer who comes to the town, trying to lure the survivors into a class-action suit that would allow the mourning parents to attempt to sate their immense loss with the small solace of cash. Instead, he finds himself caught in a hum of what is already lost, of unspeakable fluster, embarrassing grief. (His own daughter is caught in a nightmare of potential sudden death that consumes him as well.)

Egoyan's past works have sometimes been regarded as games-playing, mechanistic and hermetic, closed worlds populated by neurotic outsiders seeking perverse substitutes for the comforts of family and home. "The Sweet Hereafter" is something fresh, about family and loss, mournful and riven with undercurrents of simmering rage. The film's moments of anguish are all the more powerful for Egoyan's magisterial restraint, thrillingly precise yet seemingly seen through the exacting, unjudging eye of a mute God. I ask the 37-year-old Egoyan if this movement to foreground emotions could be reduced to the banality of his becoming a father. "Yeah, I do think so," he says softly. But he sees recent opportunities to make short films and art installations as an equal liberation. "I'm not trying to cram everything into the one form. I still don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but doing side projects that are more exploratory will affect my feature filmmaking."

He also found adaptation to be a kind of relief. "Novels offer the chance for a really extraordinary collaboration. A novelist is concerned with detail and giving a sense of urgency to the everyday. That was never and will never be my strong point. I become very impatient. I'm concerned as a writer with the things that people do in broader strokes, the rituals that make up their lives, the professions that they consume themselves with, but not necessarily who they are. Russell's work [offers] amazing portraits of people. So why not take one person's strength and combine that with your own strategic concerns? 'Sweet Hereafter' is, structurally, definitely the most ambitious thing that I've done. But people are prepared to go along with it because they can imagine themselves in that situation. They can imagine what they'd be feeling if they were there. That makes them invest more, ultimately. And that means you can actually go further."

To shattering effect, Egoyan does just that, parceling out what we already know, moving fluidly back and forth across months of screen time. There is a scene of brute simplicity where a husband and wife, small against mountains of white and sky so clear, bundle their beloved adopted son off to the bus, to the foreordained disaster. It is an act of simplest love, of instinctual concern, of unwitting farewell. Then there is a later shot, when the bus is lost, the most sophisticated moment of Egoyan's canvas, a depopulated Bruegel winterscape that is purest horror, yet pushes the screams of children into distance, to a deeper agony within memory -- that of the survivors, ours. Yet that parental good-bye along a slushed road in a high winter heaven is so simple and perfect, that Egoyan's work seems finally ready to move out of art houses and into the hearts and malls of the world.

Egoyan is concerned how the film will be perceived through word-of-mouth. "If people think 'Sweet Hereafter' is [only] a film about dead kids," he says, "it becomes this major obstacle to them wanting to see this film. It's something that never even occurred to me as I was making it. But there's such a division between the spirit that you have going into making a film and what you now have to contend with, which is the competitiveness of the marketplace."

Perhaps it's best those concerns never entered his mind, or he would not have spun the story in such a haunting form. "It's interesting talking about this phenomenon of trying to make sense of things when you know the end of narrative," he says. "Especially when the end of that narrative is death. We cannot believe that death is simple. We invest too much into it. So we have to have conspiracy theories. We say, there are all sorts of reasons why it has to happen. The simple fact of it is unbearable. We cannot let ourselves believe that it's as plain as that. The more elaborate you make an investigation, the more you invest into the intricacy, the more you're trying to deny the simple fact of death. The narrative is over. That's Holm's speech to one of the families, 'Actions don't just happen.' There's no such thing as an accident. He's spinning out a conspiracy theory, right? To me, the most interesting part of the film is that it becomes a reconstructed narrative, where [a character's testimony at the end] shuts the door on all that speculation." That testimony may or may not be true. The character's motivations are complex and layered, but the response is framed as a simple assertion, as strong and final as death itself. Yet "The Sweet Hereafter"'s audacious warping of time, far more rewarding than a similar playfulness in "Pulp Fiction," suggests that answers never come, only healing, which we can refuse or embrace.