Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Looking over the stuff I've put here, I see one major problem (at least): it's on too many different subjects! People who come here because they are interested in one of these subjects are likely to be completely indifferent to others. I should have two or three different blogs, but I don't post often enough to keep several of them airborne!
To help readers avoid what they don't find interesting, I've attached labels indicating subject-categories for my old posts. Here are the categories I've come up with, and the number of posts I have counted in each category: politics (30), ethics (20), free speech (15), arts (13), education (11), conspiracism (9), travel (6), religion (6), obituaries (5), psychology (4), economics (3), methodology (3), Nietzsche (3), food (3).
Maybe I should say that I have no expert knowledge of most of these subjects. I'm just some schmo with a laptop.
Apologies to Grant McCracken, whom I am imitating shamelessly in this post. I only steal from the best!
Monday, July 30, 2007
I have mixed feelings about this man. Pauline Kael says somewhere that he is the favorite director of people who don't like movies. If the thing that annoys you about the movies is that they aren't existential novels or turgid philosophical disquisitions, if they are just too darn interesting a too damn much fun, if you hanker and yearn for the gloomy and the depressing, then Bergman is your man. The fact that he idolizes Bergman has always seemed to me an expression of the neurotic side (is there any other side?) of Woody Allen.
On the one hand. On the other hand, he did make The Magic Flute, one of my two favorite opera movies (the other being Powell and Pressburger's immortal The Tales of Hoffmann). I also loved The Virgin Spring -- But then I'm a sucker for Medieval revenge tales, so consider the source. (I once read the entire Nibelungenlied while on a camping trip. What a nut!)
The thing about Bergman that is often overlooked is that he was a master storyteller. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, when he would allow himself to use it. Like all the great film makers, he told stories -- not in marks on a page or words around a campfire -- but in light. The level of interest in Bergman's work today is be a tiny fraction of what it was in the sixties, at its height. If he does survive, which he well might after all, it won't be because of the profundities his admirers see in his works, but because he was a great story-teller.
Added later: I later found out that Michelangelo Antonioni died the same day.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
I realize that in putting it here I am probably violating Tony Bourdain’s wishes. If he, or his lawyers, ask me to take it off, I will do so instantly. Tony is my new mentor. Yay Tony! Tony for President!
NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT……
By Anthony Bourdain
I actually WATCH Food Network now and again, more often than not drawn in by the progressive horrors on screen. [As to me, I am a Food Network addict. Like any addiction, it is not a pretty thing.] I find myself riveted by its awfulness, like watching a multi-car accident in slow motion. Mesmerized at the ascent of the Ready-Made bobblehead personalities, and the not-so-subtle shunting aside of the Old School chefs, I find myself de-constructing the not-terrible shows, imagining behind the scenes struggles and frustrations, and obsessing unhealthily on the Truly Awful ones. Screaming out loud at Sandra Lee in disbelief as she massacres another dish, then sits grinning, her face stretched into a terrifying rictus of faux cheer for the final triumphant presentation. I mourn for Mario..and Alton...Bobby and yes--even Emeril, nobly holding the fort while the TV empire he helped build crumbles like undercooked Bundt cake into a goo of Cheez Wiz around him.
Some thoughts on the Newer, Younger, More Male-Oriented, More Dumb-Ass Food Network:
ALTON BROWN: How did Alton slip inside the wire--and stay there all these years? He must have something on them. He’s smart. You actually learn something from his commentary. And I’ll admit it: I watch and enjoy Iron Chef America-in all its cheesy glory. Absolutely SHOCKED and thrilled when guys like Homaru Cantu show up as contestants--and delighted when Mario wins--again and again, forestalling his secretly long-planned execution. His commentary is mostly good. And that collar-bone snapping fall off the motorcycle on Feasting On Asphalt? Good television! [I think I can explain why Alton has lasted. He’s educational, yes, and that’s why I too love him. But when he does it, it doesn’t feel like education. His shows are like those wines that “go down like soda pop.” You’re drunk before you know it – and by then you don’t care!]
EMERIL: I’m actually grateful when I channel surf across his show. He’s STILL there--the original Behemoth. And I STILL find him unwatchable. As much mileage as I’ve gotten over the years, making fun of Emeril; he deserves a lot more respect than I’ve given him. He does run a very successful and very decent restaurant group. He is--in fact--a really nice guy. And-as much as I hate the show-- compared to the current crop of culinary non-entities, he looks like Escoffier. He will probably be the last of the Real Chefs. I’m sure they’re growing future replacement options in petrie dishes somewhere, conducting Top Secret focus groups at suburban malls with their latest Bright Young Hopeful. I’m just glad he’s still there--a rebuke to the geniuses who brought us such Great Ideas as Dweezil and Lisa. [Emeril’s recipes are very good – and there are so many of them! This man is a genius. It’s too bad that in constructing his screen persona he found so many distinct, powerful ways to be annoying. If he were a writer, he would be an exclamation-point addict. By the way, isn’t“kick it up a notch!” a mixed metaphor? Am I the only one who cares?]
BOBBY FLAY: They seem to have noticed Bobby’s strong “negatives” among some viewer responses during focus groups--and decided to respond by subjecting poor Bobby to THROWDOWN; the object of which is to allow every web-fingered geek with a backyard grill--or half-mad muffin maker to proclaim, “I beat Bobby Flay at makin’ barbeque!” at the heart-warming end of show--before returning to tend their meth labs.. I watched poor Bobby battle to a draw recently in some bogus Southwestern “Chili Face-Off.” Now…does ANYONE actually believe that Bobby Flay can’t make a better chili than a supermarket ground beef bearing amateur? I don’t. It’s a cruel exercise in humiliation. A variation on “Dunk Bozo” or “Shoot The Geek,” at the carnival. And whatever I might have thought of Flay’s previous TV efforts, I find the network’s misuse of one of their founding chefs to be nauseatingly cynical. The conspiratorial-minded might be tempted to suspect this as yet another part of the Secret Plan to rid themselves of the annoyingly big ticket chefs--by driving Bobby to quit--or insane with misery. He may not be Mr. Cuddlesworth, but he’s a successful businessman and a good chef--and he doesn’t, after all, need this shit. [Again, right on the mark. It’s as if FN has decided Bobby is just the sort of guy democratic America would like to see humiliated every week. “Huh! He thinks he’s so smart!” He is smart, assholes.]
Oh, Mario! Oh great one! They shut down Molto Mario--only the smartest and best of the stand-up cooking shows. Is there any more egregiously under-used, criminally mishandled, dismissively treated chef on television? Relegated to the circus of Iron Chef America, where--like a great, toothless lion, fouling his cage, he hangs on--and on--a major draw (and often the only reason to watch the show). How I would like to see him unchained, free to make the television shows he’s capable of, the Real Mario--in all his Rabelasian brilliance. How I would love to hear the snapping bones of his cruel FN ringmasters, crunching between his mighty jaws! Let us see the cloven hooves beneath those cheery clogs! Let Mario be Mario! [Yes! Free Mario! Free Mario!]
THAT ACE OF CAKES GUY: Hey…He’s got talent! And..he seems to be a trained chef! And he’s really making food--and selling it in a real business! I think…I like it! If I have one reservation, it’s that I have no idea if the stuff actually TASTES good. It LOOKS really creative and quirky--and I’m interested but…I mean...it’s like construction going on over there from what we’re told and shown. One suspects that the producers don’t want to waste valuable time talking about anything so technical as food--on “Food” Network. I mean...what’s in those cakes, beneath the icing and marzipan and fondant? That said, it’s the only “kicky, new, cutting edge, in-your-face” hopeful they’ve managed to trot out of any quality in memory. Hope it lasts. Wait till they try and put the poor bastard on a pony--or do a “Tailgate Special” with the usual suspects. Or a “Thanksgiving Special” where he has to sit down with the bobbleheads and pretend to like it. On balance, it’s still probably the best new project they’ve come up with in a long, long time. [One of the many things that makes this show so refreshing: it’s one of the very few on the FN where most of the people are not physically pretty. These are real people, thank God!]
GIADA: What’s going on here!? Giada can actually cook! She was robbed in her bout versus Rachael Ray on ICA. ROBBED! And Food Net seems more interested in her enormous head (big head equals big ratings. Really!) and her cleavage--than the fact that she’s likeable, knows what she’s doing in an Italian kitchen--and makes food you’d actually want to eat. The new high concept Weekend Getaway show is a horrible, tired re-cap of the cheap-ass “Best Of” and “40 Dollar a Day” formula. Send host to empty restaurant. Watch them make crappy food for her. Have her take a few lonely, awkward stabs at the plate, then feign enjoyment with appropriately orgasmic eye-closing and moaning..Before spitting it out and rushing to the trailer. Send her to Italy and let her cook. She’s good at it. [On that Iron Chef special, you could literally see Rachel sweating. No one seemed more shocked that she won than she did.]
RACHAEL: Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So...what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could--if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?” Where the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us, make us better--teach us--and in fact, did, Rachael uses her strange and terrible powers to narcotize her public with her hypnotic mantra of Yummo and Evoo and Sammys. “You’re doing just fine. You don’t even have to chop an onion--you can buy it already chopped. Aspire to nothing…Just sit there. Have another Triscuit…Sleep….sleep….” [Well, yes, if you want to call it that, “mediocrity” is what Rachel is all about. It’s what Ortega y Gasset would call her “theme." Understand why mediocrity rules our world and you will understand the great Rachel phemenon. There is a positive side to Rachel, of course, but the positives are really negatives, in the sense that they consist of her lacking some liability or other. She is not intimidating, not too smart, not too beautiful. She is the perfect little sister, someone you would love to go shopping with, if you could ever get her to shut up. The unfortunate Giada, on the other hand, is everything Rachel is not. It's her curse.]
PAULA DEEN: I’m reluctant to bash what seems to be a nice old lady. Even if her supporting cast is beginning to look like the Hills Have Eyes--and her food a True Buffet of Horrors. A recent Hawaii show was indistinguishable from an early John Waters film. And the food on a par with the last scene of Pink Flamingos. But I’d like to see her mad. Like her look-alike, Divine in the classic, “Female Trouble.“ Paula Deen on a Baltimore Killing Spree would be something to see. Let her get Rachael in a headlock--and it’s all over. [Ah, Paula! She just might be the only FN personality who is more annoying than Emeril.]
SANDRA LEE: Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time. She Must Be Stopped. Her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained. I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see. This is simply irresponsible programming. Its only possible use might be as a psychological warfare strategy against the resurgent Taliban--or dangerous insurgent groups. A large-racked blonde repeatedly urging Afghans and angry Iraqis to stuff themseles with fatty, processed American foods might be just the weapon we need to win the war on terror. [This is almost as good as Bourdain’s other, more famous, remark on Sandra: “think of Betty Crocker after a weekend huffing crack.”]
H. L. Mencken said that democracy is the theory that the people deserve to get what they want, good and hard. The market is more democratic than any government could ever be. Ultimately, this is the moral problem with the Food Channel, as with any business corporation. They are giving the average schmo exactly what he wants, and nothing one bit better. That's the real tragedy of it: What a waste! I say unto them, in the words of Emeril, kick it up a notch!
By the way, you can find Michael Ruhlman's delightfully incendiary comment on the crashing and burning of the Food Network's Next Star Season Three here. Ruhlman also posted Bourdain's comment on the FNNS Season Three first episode here. It is, as there is surely no need to say, brilliant.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Imagine something like this coming out of Hollywood. And from Disney, no less! There exists in our culture an ideology that I think of as egalitarian-enviro-vegatario-anarcho-socialism. Not only is everybody equal, but animals are as good as people. All violence is evil (don’t even think about self-defense). The highest experience would be a big warm, fuzzy group-hug with the whole world. Sometimes I think this ideology was invented, not by Karl Marx, Rachel Carson, or Jean Jacques Rousseau, but by Walt Disney in the thirties and forties. If calling it enviro- ... etc. is too complicated, just call it “Bambi-ism.” I don’t think anyone will wonder what you mean. The philosophical core of “Ratatouille” is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Bambi-ism. And that is really something to celebrate.
Also, the voicework is magnetically charming, the dialogue is witty, the story well-constructed, the music (though not especially memorable) is effective, and the computer-generated mise-en-scene is brilliant. Most amazingly, even though it is an animated feature, it shows an unprecedented amount of respect for the viewer’s intelligence. Notice that the title breaks one of the oldest rules in Hollywood: never, ever give a movie a title that you have to explain to the audience -- especially if you also have to explain how to pronounce it! (Paramount once made Joe von Sternberg change a movie title from Capriccio Espagnol to The Devil is a Woman. Need I say more?) The tradition is to treat your audience like slow-witted children. This movie treats them like intelligent adults.
Having said this, I guess I have to say that I think it is probably a bad thing that this movie is so good. (Here I am being influenced by Eddie Fitzgerald at Uncle Eddie’s Theory Corner!) It has two characteristics that I really don’t care for, and its success will no doubt make movies with these two traits even more common than they already are.
For one thing, it's yet another one of those fully computer-animated movies. The goal with computer animation seems to be to make the frame look as much like a photograph as possible. That means that it will have none of the sort of visual style that a drawing or a painting can have. What is the point? The end credits of this movie, which were hand-drawn, had more style than the whole rest of the film.
The other characteristic I don't at all care for is that the aesthetic of this film is actually much more like that of a live action film than it is like a traditional animated one. The classic animated movies were visual-driven, as were the slapstick comedies of the twenties. This movie is more like the witty, wise-cracking, talky comedies of the thirties. Per se, there is nothing wrong with that. I love The Front Page, The Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night. But if a movie is going to be so script-driven and dialogue-dominated, why should it be animated at all? Again, what is the point? There is really no reason for this movie to be animated, other than that actors in rat suits would look silly. But the worst thing is -- it makes it even less likely that Hollywood will make the the other, visually driven kind of animation again, and that is really something to be mourned.
Image at head of this post taken without permission from Jenny L.'s excellent review of the film. Please don't sue me, anybody!
Monday, July 16, 2007
Some not-quite-random observations.
I was not surprized when the three semi-finalists ended up being JAG (Joshua Adam Garcia), Amy, and Rory -- the only three I ever took seriously in the first place.
I was surprised, no, stunned when, of these three, the judges chose to eliminate Amy instead of JAG. I was actually less surprised when they brought Amy back and accepted JAG's resignation, because he had lied to them about two things that (I think) had never been mentioned on the show: that he had been deployed to Afghanistan while in the Marines, and that he had graduated from culinary school.
Why wasn't I so surprised? Because there was a character issue about JAG from the git-go, which the judges knew all about and mentioned frequently. In the military base episode, he threw a fit when his stove didn't work properly (it belongs to the government and doesn't work? what a shock!). Later, when some (non-chili) peppers were missing from his shopping bag, he flew into a rage and blamed others, even though a) the omission was clearly his fault and proven to be so, and b) the ingredient was obviously completely unnecessary. The fact that he turns out to be not merely an intemperate hothead but a liar as well is of course something I could not have predicted. But it isn't a big surprise either. He needs to take a hard look at himself and get his act together. (Will he? His exit interview strikes exactly the right note, so there is reason to be hopeful.)
Don't get me wrong. I would much, much rather take cooking lessons from JAG than from the other two. Also, I liked him. He reminds me of some of my friends. But the particular friends I am thinking of have trouble holding down a job or staying married to the same person for a while. Friend and Person with Large Organizational Responsibilities have different job descriptions. The prize in this competition is that the winner gets her/his own show on the Food Network. If you are going to give someone that sort of responsibility, they had better have a solid character, or you are going to have trouble. What were these judges thinking in not eliminating JAG in the first place? (Added later: They deserve part of the blame for the damage he did -- see below.)
Asked by a Congressional committee "Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?” J. P. Morgan famously replied:
No, sir, the first thing is character. ... Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it. … Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.I admit that Morgan was specifically talking about banking, where character is even more important than in other walks of life. (Exercise for the reader: You are leaving your life savings with me for safe keeping. Which will you care more about: 1) whether I am scrupulously honest, 2) whether I am brilliantly smart, 3) whether I am of the same race/religion/political party as you.?Time's up!) But suitably modified I think it applies everywhere. If you ain't got character you ain't got sheeit.
If you don't have character, the people who trust you are fools. Do you want to deal exclusively with fools?
So now it's between Rory ("one thing that makes fat taste better is more fat") and Amy (who has trouble talking about an egg without calling it an œuf). I don't have a dog in this fight, but I figure the winner pretty much has to be Rory. (Note: Because I was camping in South Dakota, I missed the Iron Chef episode, the one episode where Amy really stood out.) Amy probably knows more about food, but Rory, who looks like a Playboy Playmate (see picture above left) and has a louder personality, comes across better on TV. Also, I made Rory's Bon Apetit cover recipe, and it was very good. The ribs were a little too falling-off-the-bone for my taste, but otherwise the whole meal was excellent. In fact, I'll probably make it again, with various modifications. So if Rory wins, which is likely, I can live with that. (For a somewhat different view of Amy v. Rory, go here.)Added later: Well shut my mouth! Amy won! When I wrote the above, I did not know that the viewers would be deciding the winner by an on-line vote. Also, as I said, I had not seen the one episode that Amy did best: The Iron Chef one. Now that I have seen it, I can understand giving it to her. BTW, though I voted for Rory, after seeing their biographies on the last episode, I started to regret it, because I realized that Amy needed a win a lot more than Rory did. Rory has this huge restaurant in Vega, Texas, where eveyrone loves her, and Amy, who studied cuisine in Paris, is cooking for -- her family! Maybe God is a bit of an egalitarian after all. (Ordinarily, you sure wouldn't think so! For he that hath, to him shall be given.)
Added even later: What follows is based on information gleaned from the blogosphere, which I have not been able to check. I guess I have to take back what I said about Amy probably knowing more about food than Rory. It turns out that Rory graduated from the distinguished Culinary Institute of America, while Amy took some classes at a school in France, one that, apparently, is quite obscure. Like a lot of other viewers, but unlike the FN judges, I fell for that "I studied in Paris" crap. Rory, who unlike Amy has owned two restaurants and is a credentialed expert, was penalized for her lack of pretentiousness. (We Americans are such chumps about the French! When, oh when, will we get over it? Never, I guess. Sigh.) Amy's win was probably, like many another outcome of democratic elections, an injustice. The Network's odd decision to choose the winner by means of an election, and the disappointing and lackluster final episode of the season three series, were in effect parting gifts from JAG. Originally, the Network had filmed the final episode in February, in which finalists JAG and Rory were flown to Florida and had to cook dinner for all the Food Network stars. Apparently, the other stars were to choose their new colleague, like a university department doing a personnel search. Pretty cool! Much better, at any rate, than having the viewers decide. (Since when are the viewers supposed to be experts on who will be able to make a TV series that they, the viewers, will like? They aren't.) But then JAG's character problem boiled over, and they had to junk all that footage and, whether it was because they lacked the time or the money, they did the crummy, cheapo final episode that we saw. Thanks alot JAG! (You putz.)
Saturday, July 07, 2007
Mammoth, I mean. In terms of mapped passageways, the longest on Earth (367 miles). Sadly, I took no pictures at all when I was there earlier this week. The one at the left is from a government web site. Yes, it does depict something Nat and I actually did. Yikes!
I'm home for a pit stop, on the way to South Dakota. One thing I learned on the Kentucky trip -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (like P. T. Barnum, Jenny Lind, and other nineteenth century notables) visited the cave, and around the time that Thoreau was working on Walden, he wrote about it in the opening paragraphs of the essay "Illusions." (In Essays, Second Series, I think). Here is what Emerson said:
When I was in the Star Chamber, the illusion wasn't nearly pronounced, probably because they were shining too much light on the gypsum-crusted ceiling. Maybe that's why it didn't give me any deep thoughts about illusions.
Some years ago, in company with an agreeable party, I spent a long summer day in exploring the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We traversed, through spacious galleries affording a solid masonry foundation for the town and county overhead, the six or eight black miles from the mouth of the cavern to the innermost recess which tourists visit,--a niche or grotto made of one seamless stalactite, and called, I believe, Serena's Bower. I lost the light of one day. I saw high domes, and bottomless pits; heard the voice of unseen waterfalls; paddled three quarters of a mile in the deep Echo River, whose waters are peopled with the blind fish; crossed the streams "Lethe" and "Styx;" plied with music and guns the echoes in these alarming galleries; saw every form of stalagmite and stalactite in the sculptured and fretted chambers,--icicle, orange-flower, acanthus, grapes, and snowball. We shot Bengal lights into the vaults and groins of the sparry cathedrals, and examined all the masterpieces which the four combined engineers, water, limestone, gravitation, and time, could make in the dark.
The mysteries and scenery of the cave had the same dignity that belongs to all natural objects, and which shames the fine things to which we foppishly compare them. I remarked, especially, the mimetic habit, with which Nature, on new instruments, hums her old tunes, making night to mimic day, and chemistry to ape vegetation. But I then took notice, and still chiefly remember, that the best thing which the cave had to offer was an illusion. On arriving at what is called the "Star-Chamber," our lamps were taken from us by the guide, and extinguished or put aside, and, on looking upwards, I saw or seemed to see the night heaven thick with stars glimmering more or less brightly over our heads, and even what seemed a comet flaming among them. All the party were touched with astonishment and pleasure. Our musical friends sung with much feeling a pretty song, "The stars are in the quiet sky," &c., and I sat down on the rocky floor to enjoy the serene picture. Some crystal specks in the black ceiling high overhead, reflecting the light of a half-hid lamp, yielded this magnificent effect.
I own, I did not like the cave so well for eking out its sublimities with this theatrical trick. But I have had many experiences like it, before and since; and we must be content to be pleased without too curiously analyzing the occasions. Our conversation with Nature is not just what it seems. The cloud-rack, the sunrise and sunset glories, rainbows, and northern lights are not quite so spheral as our childhood thought them; and the part our organization plays in them is too large. The senses interfere everywhere, and mix their own structure with all they report of. Once, we fancied the earth a plane, and stationary. In admiring the sunset, we do not yet deduct the rounding, coordinating, pictorial powers of the eye.