30 April 2005

Vengeance of the Brit deli

The revenge of ordinary British food? In the Independent: "Abandon all hope, you greasy croissants: the British delicatessen is back with a vengeance. So settle down for a hearty feast of bacon butties, potted shrimp and fairy cakes - not to mention fine tea and clotted-cream fudge..." [More at the link.]

22 April 2005

Burp of a nation: On Belgian beer

"May I see the beer list, please?"

At Kendall College of Chicago this weekend (March 15-16), that will be more a glory than a gag. Connoisseurs of fashion have been rolling the names of clever Belgian designers off the tongue for more than a decade—Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester—but the reputation, and snob appeal, of Belgian beer and cuisine remains more exotic. From a kingdom half the size of Lake Michigan, more than 350 different concerns produce 800 types of beer, over 100 of which will be represented this weekend at Chicago's first Belgian Beer Celebration. The plain yet peppy "daily" Pils of Stella Artois is stocked across the city, and the label of the little bottles of creamy, apricot-y Red Chimay is familiar at bars around Chicago, including Andersonville's Hopleaf. But this weekend's range of beer and food will surprise many, demonstrating why aficionados of Belgium's many varieties of beer, from Trappist ales to fruity lambics, appreciate them with a discernment usually reserved for wine.

The taste sensations are intertwined back on home turf. Bernard Geenen, Trade Commissioner of the Wallonia Trade Office of the Consulate General of Belgium, one of the event's sponsors, notes that "beer appears in all kinds of dishes: appetizers, main course, salty dishes, desserts. My mother even put some in a waffle batter."

Craig Hartinger, from Seattle's Merchants du Vin distributors, U.S. importers for several major brewers, believes the savor travels. For him, "the beers taste the same here and there. Belgian ales tend to be big and bottle-conditioned. A big factor in the perceived difference is the non-beer factors of drinking in Belgium: being at or near the brewery; being in an Art Nouveau beer bar that hasn't really changed since when it opened in 1908; noticing that even the dumpy convenience store next door carries five Trappist beers and five gueuzes; and just being in a part of the world where folks who `get' good beer are not a minority."

Geenen agrees about his culture. "Just like wine, nothing beats drinking the product in the region it was produced. It is a more wholesome experience than the taste itself. Thankfully, unlike some wine, beer travels well." His own travels with beer began at age 12, during secondary education at a Catholic boarding school. "We had one one-liter beer bottle on each table of eight students at lunch. Each of us had one glass of very-low-alcohol-content beer. The priests were convinced—and they were right!—that beer was much healthier than soft drinks, less sugar, natural ingredients, great for digestion." And of digestion, "We Belgians have a saying that one beer has the nutritional value of a sandwich. And Lord knows we like to eat lots of sandwiches!"

But there are more than sandwiches to sample this weekend. "Beer at the Dinner Table" is the title of a book by Herwig van Hove, the event's key guest. As Belgium's Iron Chef, with a long-running TV show, "1000 Seconden," where he prepares a full three-course meal in 1000 seconds, Hove is a proponent of beer with food. Rick Cooper, the project manager for the event, has gone "beer hunting" in Belgium more than a dozen times in the past two decades. "For Belgian beer, where brewing is an art and probably a religion, it's essential to research; taste, visit, meet with people and absorb information." While he doesn't discount other brewing countries, Cooper believes that "no other nation brews the variety of beer styles of Belgium. Maybe there is something in the air, certainly around Brussels, where Lambic beers are produced with 'wild' yeasts."

Hartinger thinks Belgian beer hits notes both high and low. "Belgian ales can bring the conversation-stopping and food-pairing delight of wines, while maintaining the relaxed, unsnobby appeal of good beer." He points out that European beer tours today almost inevitably include Belgium, with many now even skipping Germany, England and the Czech Republic. "We're seeing a solid, exciting trend in fine beer. It's becoming less common to see a restaurant with 200 wines, thirty single-malt Scotches, and the same four beers. Imagine if fifteen years ago you walked into a fine restaurant in New York or Chicago and asked for a beer list. They would have laughed. Now they pull out a selection of beers that covers the styles and can pair with any item on the menu."

Merch will be laid on heavy, too, organized by beer mecca John's Grocery of Iowa City, Iowa, family-owned since 1948, with sixty-six authentic tulip, flute, chalice, pilsner, tumbler, stein and mug styles available, along with a raft of T-shirts, bottle openers and bar trays. Doug Alberhasky of John's Grocery says that seven years ago, he could only get four Belgian beers from his regular beer distributor. The problem was made worse by Iowa law, where any beer over 6.25 percent alcohol is considered liquor. But, "after a lot of hard work on the part of our importers and myself, we are able to bring in pallet quantities through the state as special orders. Now, after a couple years, we're up to 136 different beers from Belgium [out of 1,900 they stock], and by working very closely with our importers, we are able to offer rare beers that are hard to find even in Belgium."

Roger Giraud, Trade Commissioner for Flanders/Belgium in Chicago and one of the event's organizers, notes that Belgium's reputation for beer has lasted since the Middle Ages. "Beer is entwined with our culture. Some small village may not have shops, but you will always find a cafe [that serves beer]. Belgian beer can be very strong, therefore we say: Beer, brewed with love, to be drunk with care."

[Published in a slightly different form in Newcity, 12 April 2005]

And speaking of cunnilingus...

The Guardian's Susanna Forrest has words for "She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman: "The book is [a] passionate polemic on oral sex, a dense 200-plus pages of instruction with some clear line drawings to illustrate and quotations from Aristotle, Karl Marx, Harold Pinter and EB White, among others. It is full of slogans and puns ("The tongue is mightier than the sword", "Avoid Freud") and incorporates his Cunnilinguist Manifesto: "To her according to your abilities, from you according to her needs." Sometimes the "thinking man's" angle feels a little overdone—do you really want your significant other to perform Hamlet's soliloquy on your clitoris?—but the book is readable and friendly, and resolutely womancentric. Kerner says his aim was to produce a "manifesto of sexual contentment", as, despite all our protestations of openness and liberation, it becomes rapidly clear that men and women, while prepared to commit all manner of intimate acts on one another, display a reticence about communicating their sexual needs that would put a Cistercian monk to shame."

Greil Marcus' 'Like a Rolling Stone': 'I didn't want it to get away from me'

Rock fan-literary man Greil Marcus tells the SF Chronicle about his new book, a 30-day-wonder: "To me, the song is like an event," he said, "a battle in a war, a natural disaster, a runaway train—something that happens... I wanted this book to be simple, direct, to the degree that I'm capable of that... That's why I wanted to have a single focus. Even when I'm talking about other things, you always know you're going to get back to home, and home base is this song and why is it different, why is it so big? That's the question that's always there. I didn't want there to be any interpretation in the book—what does this mean? Or even new criticism interpretation—how does this mean? I didn't want 'mean' to be in it. I wanted 'happen' to be in it. I wanted the event to be in it. I didn't want to talk about Bob Dylan's significance as an artist in the 20th century or the 21st century. Or his role in the counterculture or anything. I wanted to talk about him as someone struggling with his own work, his own music and getting stuck in it. I wanted this to be a simple story, a small story with a big sound at its heart. And I didn't want it to get away from me." [A nice pic of the man at home.]

Canadian avant-retro?: 'Every zipper finds a new home'

The Globe and Mail surveys the Canadian side of a trend: avant-garde vintage: "Now that we've all experienced vintage shopping (and now that first-run labels have caught the old-is-chic bug, and are making fake vintage), it is time to raise the style stakes, [a boutique owner] says. "When I can't tell when a shirt is vintage, it's getting confusing out there. We want to take each piece to the next level." When the retro-nostalgia trend first hit in the 1990s, many a fashion lover was happy to discover flea market-y shops for worn-in 501s and decrepit AC/DC concert tees. Then we were initiated into the fine label market by shops such as the Los Angeles/Toronto-based Paperbag Princess and Holt Renfrew's Vintage Couture department; along with movie stars, we wore picture-perfect Ungaro and Pucci to parties. Now, "We use every bit of everything," says Sullivan, 30, who is a former social worker and event planner. "Nothing gets wasted, every zipper finds a new home."

20 April 2005

Dining with Rex Reed: Strange food

At Pride, Unprejudiced, check out a quick survey of Rex Reed's food fixations, in light of his recent, racially tinged review of Oldboy: "Even a cursory search shows that prose is stranger than fiction: Oldboy is not Reed's first serving of crackpot culinary dish. Graze the buffet: Reviewing Be Cool: “To call it one more movie about the pop music business that fails to nail its target with a sharp punch is like inviting a man with food poisoning to dinner in a clam house.” Reviewing Rockstar: “Rock stars have the shelf life of unrefrigerated clams." Along with the suggestion that Adrien Brody ought to have a nice meal, Reed notes in The Jacket “fake tears that have the odd consistency of maple syrup.” [More at the link.]

I came so far for beauty: a Nobel for Leonard Cohen?

The Guardian looks at Leonard Cohen's nom for a Nobel Prize: "Now in his 70s, Cohen has attained what Dr. Johnson called "the dignity of an ancient". He has gone through the painful phases required of a proper poet. First there was gravel-voiced despair ("Like a bird on a wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir"). Next came mid-life libertinism (see 'New Skin for the Old Ceremony,' and its paean to oral sex with Janis Joplin, 'Chelsea Hotel No 2'). And then there was late-life religion, with 1984's 'Various Positions,' written after Cohen tried taking "the Bodhisattva path, which is the path of service". "Once you start dealing with sacred material, you're gonna get creamed," reflected Cohen. The true poet has to pay a price. Now is the time for his reward. How can the Nobel prize committee say no?" The Beeb notes, "In many other language cultures, there is no question that song lyrics have literary merit. However, the idea of giving a pop star like Cohen a Nobel prize for literature is still seen as unusual in the English-speaking world."

Tilting at Quixote

The Beeb reports that "the Venezuelan government has printed one million free copies of Don Quixote to mark the book's 400th anniversary. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged everyone to read Miguel de Cervantes' Spanish classic. He called on everyone to "feed ourselves once again with that spirit of a fighter who went out to undo injustices and fix the world". "To some extent, we are followers of Quixote," he told viewers of his Hello President TV show. The Venezuelan edition contains a prologue written by Portuguese Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago."

19 April 2005

If there's too much extraneous description the genuinely disturbing turns into bathos

In the Guardian, Adrian Searle makes a case for Gregory Crewdson's work suffering from a bout of too-muchness: "But Crewdson tries to turn the fact that much of what is going on in his photographs is a bit unbelievable into uncanniness. In some circumstances we can all be suckers for detail, but if there's too much extraneous description the genuinely disturbing turns into bathos. Beneath the Roses suffers from a surfeit of American realism and production values: there are too many toys, too many set dressers, hair people, rain and fog guys - and too many chances to tweak the picture later, which doesn't help. The artificially assisted daylight, the crepuscular, pink-hued skies, the smoke-machine mists and the fire department rain are too much. It all feels too concocted for its own good. I feel the same about some of Vancouver-based artist Jeff Wall's manipulated and staged images. Rather than 20 images (although Crewdson threw out as many again in post-production), I think 5 or 6 would have had more effect."

17 April 2005

Orkin's photograph stands right in the middle of the American century

In the Observer, dependable Geoff Dyer is oft-brilliant dissecting the meanings of Ruth Orkin's photograph, "Times Square, V-E Day, NYC, 1945" (search for "Ruth Orkin" twice for image): "Photographs depict a moment but they can contain years, decades. Few, however, are as saturated with history as Ruth Orkin's picture of the crowd in Times Square on VE Day, 8 May, 1945... The office block in the middle of Orkin's picture shares the high-prowed magnificence of the Flatiron building to such an extent that it looks, almost, like an ocean liner surging into the future. The name of this ship? ...The figurehead makes that obvious: the SS Liberty. Although we are seeing an actual place, it is as if various geographically dispersed symbols of New York have been compressed into a composite of the city, a concentration of everything American that is at once mythic and real... What makes this picture so contemporary, though, is not the woman's presence but her posture. What is she doing? Cut her out of this 1945 photo and paste her into a shot of St Peter's from Pope John Paul II's funeral and you would swear she was talking on a mobile phone... Taken in the middle of New York, Orkin's photograph stands right in the middle of the American century which began with the larking crowds of 1914 and ended with the shocked onlookers gazing in disbelief at the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001."

14 April 2005

Owing a death to society

John Powers is good in LA Weekly about recent spate of deaths of 20th century cultural figures: "These are heady days to be an obituary writer. Ever since America’s best-known critic, Susan Sontag, died in late December, there’s been a startling slew of Important Deaths. The greatest talk-show host, Johnny Carson. The most famous playwright, Arthur Miller. The most gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. The most legendary diplomat, George F. Kennan. The most lavishly celebrated novelist, Saul Bellow. The most career-savvy (and politically reprehensible) architect, Philip Johnson. The most irrelevant monarch, Prince Rainier. Not to mention the most infallible pope—at least until the next one. So many big names have passed away so quickly that people have taken to joking about it. When The Daily Show flashed an image of Fidel Castro honoring John Paul II, Jon Stewart’s comment was, “He’s next.” [More at the link.]

The welcoming of chance: Hal Hartley's latest philosophy


What The Girl from Monday is, genuinely, is an anomaly. Stark yet brightly colored, in its characters’ faces, yet almost always seen from tilted angles, filled with gestures but reliant on mordant, explicit narration, it tells the story of a marketing exec meeting a beautiful woman from another constellation after “the great revolution.” Bill Sage, weary-eyed and skeptical, with gelled hair ever in need of wrangling, is obsessed with sex and its market(ing) value. While Hartley is slated to shoot Fay Grim, a comic narrative sequel this year to his 1998 Henry Fool, The Girl from Monday most resembles his 1999 Book of Life, a shot-on-video, $350,000 production that embraced video as a unique visual medium as well as a shambling, episodic approach to storytelling.

For this emphatic essay, made on the same scale, Hartley and his partners are focusing on distributing the movie on DVD directly to consumers, without conventional theatrical or festival release (although it debuted at Sundance this year, where we spoke.) “We’re using the paradigm of rock bands,” the lanky, laconic 45-year-old director of 10 features and many shorter works says, “They go on tour to promote the new album. I think I’ll just make more money selling DVDs than going through the whole theatrical release [process].” Is there a living in that? “If getting rich was a priority, I would not be making movies. That’s definite. There’s gotta be easier ways to get rich than making movies, right?”

“When [cinematographer] Sarah [Cawley-Cabiya] and I first started discussing in it 1999, it was intended to be a 35mm, million dollar film shot in 24 days,” he says. Book of Life was the real inspiration. It jumped off from there, back in that century.” He laughs. “Our esthetic then, we called it ‘exquisite miniatures.’ We were going to make it look beautiful, but the pictures were going to be small. I think [this script] lends itself to DV. It [digital video] likes small.”

Small is also the word for the cottage industry of Hartley and his partners’ new company, which has released one non-Hartley feature, but focused primarily on his work. “The Possible Films Collection started kind of casually with this CD compilation of music from my earlier films. We were responding to hits on the website, people asking about he music from the films, so I decided to produce that CD and sell it directly from my website. Again, [we were] inspired by musicians who were doing this kind of thing. That was a really easy success, so the next year, I started doing the collection of short video and films from the past ten years.

“We have a real good system that doesn’t requiem a lot of overhead or a lot of people. The database is quite large and growing. [My partner] Steve Hamilton, my editor and co-producer, [suggested we think] of making The Girl from Monday in a much smaller way, that has more in common with video work I do that winds up on DVD. We were a little ambivalent. We didn't know anyone else who was doing this, and it’s hard to break habits. It’s hard to be hard-line about it, ‘We’re going to make a movie and you can only buy it from our website.”

“Direct-to-video” is usually a slur, a phrase with a stigma. “Yeah. Yeah,” Hartley says quickly. “A stigma invented by the studios and the distributors which is completely fake. The other day, at a panel discussion, just before we were going on, a distributor said, ‘But if you do that, the newspapers don’t review movies unless they have a theatrical release.’ I was, ‘Fuck ‘em, they will once everyone starts releasing work on DVDs.’”

Aside from being composed in tight frames in order to suggest a militarized urban future with little dressing, the movie was shot at a 12-frame-per-second shutter speed, offering a “painterly” streaking and strobing when there’s motion in the fame. Hartley talks about discovering rather than imposing an esthetic, taking the freedom to fool around rather than being unnecessarily rigid. “I’ve always been like that. I remember when I was a kid, my sister Loretta could never figure out parallax view with a little family camera. She’d take a picture of you, it’d [always be off]. I found some of the most beautiful compositions. They’d always be throwing them away, but I had hundreds of Loretta’s snapshots which became the basis of a lot of paintings and drawings I was doing as a teenager. I couldn’t say it at the time, but it had something to do with this word, ‘aleatory,’ that I found. The welcoming of chance into the filmmaking process. It’s a good word.”

[Originally published in a different form in Newcity, 14 April 2005.]

10 April 2005

Paul Newman's undressing

The Observer's Food Monthly goes the length with Paul Newman: "Newman was in London last month to sign a £10 million deal with McDonald's which gives the fast-food giant the right to use his Lighten Up Newman's Own dressings on its new salads. To promote the venture—which Newman only signed after McDonald's agreed to stop using preservatives in its dressings—he flew in for some promotion. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time but the problem with signing up a star as big as Newman is that you never know what he is going to do. When an actor playing Ronald McDonald... appeared, Newman tried to pour vinegar in to one of his ears and olive oil in to the other. Later he picked up a lettuce leaf, rolled it into a cigar shape and tried to light it. 'Necessity,' he grinned, 'is the motherfucker of invention.'"... Newman also ventures about being 80: I'm like a good cheese... I'm just getting mouldy enough to be interesting.

07 April 2005

You are an authentic primitive

Frank Conroy, dead at 69: "Mr. Conroy, whose one novel, "Body and Soul" (1993), is about a poor boy who grows up to be a famous pianist and composer, compared teaching to playing jazz. You have to be fast, able to think on your feet and able to trust yourself to improvise well within certain strictures, he said.... [A] former student, the novelist Chris Offutt, said: "He emphasized clarity above everything else. But he was also passionate about literature and about reading. He was the boss man, but he had this incredible youthful glee for writing that inspired you to want to write yourself." ... Another symbol that Mr. Conroy was a role model, [Jayne Anne] Phillips said, was that "he lived a big life." He was, Mr. Halberstam recalled, "a very cool guy—a great hipster," adding, "Frank talked a kind of jazz vernacular that would have been an affectation except it was real." Mr. Conroy... though self-taught, a good enough pianist to have jammed with Charles Mingus... Mr. Conroy recalled how he once apologized to Mingus for being a klutz. You are an authentic primitive, Mingus said. That is true. But you also swing.

06 April 2005

The book of ballads...

The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all. Saul Bellow was 89.

05 April 2005

Van Dyke presents his card

A journalist for Macleans, speaking to Brian Wilson at SxSW, discovers that Wilson's "Smile" producer and long-term cohort and seer Van Dyke Parks can finish more sentences, ends the interview with one of Mr. P's calling cards: Van Dyke Parks apologizes for his behavior on the night of [insert date here] and sincerely regrets any damage or inconvenience he may have caused.

Julia speaks!

From beyond the hearth, some of the choicest morsels ever to fall from Julia Child's table.

04 April 2005

Chicago, exotic, magical and gritty at the same time?

Before popping the gentrification question, Claire Zulkey gets Alex Kotlowitz to describe his evolving perspective on Chicago: "I suppose most outside Chicago think of it as this rough and tumble place, one that will take you for all your worth if you're not watchful. Coming from New York, I thought of it as provincial—which is how most easterners and Los Angelenos think of it. I grew up in New York, and there's no question that there folks hang around with like-minded folks —writers with writers, lawyers with lawyers, money people with money people. That's not the case in Chicago. It's a democratic (small 'd') place—where every thing and every one is out there in the open, for better or for worse... Look, the truth of the matter is, it's a complicated city, filled with paradoxes. But I like how my artist friend Tony Fitzpatrick thinks of it: as exotic, like Bombay or Istanbul. It is exotic, magical and gritty at the same time."

Man-eat-duck world

In the Times, editorial board member Lawrence Downes, a specialist in suburban issues, spits some out over Chicago chef Charlie Trotter's recent public disavowal of foie gras: Fine cooking is fine art, and Mr. Trotter should feel free to use whatever materials he likes. He says foie gras is cruel, but he could have also called it boring—a cliché slurped by too many diners who, we suspect, would swoon just as easily over the velvety succulence of Spam or schmaltz on rye, if they were prohibitively priced and listed on the menu in French. By spurning an easy fix of fancy fat, Mr. Trotter is simply making his job a bit harder, and this man-eat-duck world a slightly kinder place. There is much to admire in that.

03 April 2005

Men's fashion: I don't get everything for free

"Too many homes are without a full-length mirror." The Observer compiles whits of wisdom from male fashion editors: "David Beckham has a lot to answer for, with his highlights, crazy jeans, spray-on tan... Why do so many straight men want to look like a gay idol? ... I don't get everything for free, but I do get amazing gifts. The best was a full-length chocolate-brown leather Yves St Laurent coat. Pretty special... A cashmere jumper is worth the extra money... The item I've owned the longest is a Junior Gaultier cropped trouser suit, paid for by hard graft at rubbish Saturday jobs. In the early 90s it looked the business in the Midlands... I rarely think that clothing is worth the full retail price... My biggest mistake was a DIY hairstyle. I wanted Bowie-esque blond hair, but tried doing it myself with a pair of thinning scissors and a couple of bottles of Sun-In. The result was patchy and orange—tragic."

02 April 2005

Ways of smoking: A cigarette is like a proscenium arch for a dialogue

A lovely, lengthy conversation in the Observer between Sean O'Hagan and 78-year-old John Berger, "one of the most influential British intellectuals of the past 50 years," still drawing and writing essays, novels and criticism while "collaborating" in interviews on a month-long visit to the UK: "From the off, he sweeps you off your feet. Here is Berger on smoking, which he does with the fierce enjoyment of a true addict. 'A cigarette', he says, inhaling deeply, 'is a breathing space. It makes a parenthesis. The time of a cigarette is a parenthesis, and if it is shared you are both in that parenthesis. It's like a proscenium arch for a dialogue.'For the first time in a long time I wish I was a smoker, but, fagless, my side of the proscenium arch teetering, I listen, slightly mesmerised, trying to keep up with his free flow of ideas and the oddly illuminating tangents he keeps going off on. He shows me a strange-looking fish, given to him by the local fishmonger, who knows he likes to draw them: 'See, a collaboration that emerged from a conversation.'"