Liberté, Égalité, Etc…

My friend Greg recently treated me to a dinner at Church & State in downtown LA. He didn’t tell me where we were going, and I swear that one of the streets we drove down was the same one where Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson murdered her husband in Double Indemnity. In the end, we made it safely to 1850 Industrial St, where I realized that Nabisco actually stood for the National Biscuit Company. Who knew that Oreos were all about the anagram?


Church & State has been around since 2008, longer than I thought (I don’t get out much,) so it’s had plenty of time to practice. It’s a French bistro, taking its name, our server told us, from the fact that France was one of the first countries to separate religion from government. I thought it had something to do with the David Mamet film with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patti LuPone, but then I remembered that that was called State and Main. Executive Chef Tony Esnault came to the restaurant by way of a couple Alain Ducasse restaurants in NYC and the Disney Hall Patina out here. I’m happy he did.


We began our dinner (our server told us we’d ordered too much food) with cocktails.

imageGreg ordered the only misstep of the evening, a PB&J cocktail, made from rum, peanut orgeat, and strawberry. Peanut butter and chocolate might mix well together, but peanut butter and cocktails do not: it was vulgar and did not compliment the cachat we began with: a pot of goat cheese blended with lavender and honey, served with croutes. The tang of the chevre blended marvelously with the sweetness of the honey, the lavender blessing the combination with floral notes redolent of Provence. I drank a Premeditated–I’d finally gotten around to reading the latest Michael Connelly, so it seemed appropriate–a cocktail inspired by an Old Fashioned, a mix of rye, rum, apricot luxardo, and bitters. This was a good cocktail, and its earthiness accompanied the goat cheese very well.


By the time the Steak Tartare arrived, we were ready for another drink. Greg was disinclined to order another PB&J, so he chose Smoking Indoors, a mezcal based drink shaken with curaçao, chile infused honey, and lime–a second cousin to the margarita, and a vast improvement over his first drink. I went with the Bird of a Feather, made with Scotch, apple brandy, honey, sherry, and lemon. I prefer the brown liquors when not quaffing gin. The steak tartare, sourced from free raised beef at Strauss Family Farms, was a delight.

imageIt was chopped, not ground, and mixed with an engaging melange of herbs, an egg blended in to give it a fresco-like sheen. Many places tend to overuse horseradish in their steak tartare, but I’m pleased to say that Church & State did not fall prey to this error. The tartare was served with a mesclun salad and pommes frites garnished with a homemade mayonnaise. I have become quite a fan of mayonnaise since I’ve begun blending it myself, and this one was marvelous, just the right combination of egg, oil, and acid: rich, lemony, and indulgent. The frites were perfectly crispy and seasoned.


Greg was insistent that we sample the Os à Moelle, but I felt trepidation: I’d never eaten bone marrow, as sucking a bone has never appealed to me at the dining table. But Greg did not lead me astray. Marrow was a revelation. A shank bone, cut in half and seasoned and roasted, it was served with toasted baguette and a radish relish. Spread upon the toast and garnished with a little radish, marrow tasted the way prime rib smells when it’s cooking. It’s a good smell and a good taste.


By now, we had moved on to wine, and ordered a Chinon from the restaurant’s exclusively French wine list, and a matter of some happiness to Greg, who is partial to Old World wines. It accompanied our Salade de Betteraves, a composed salad of beets, goat cheese, and lovingly arranged lettuces and edible flowers, light and refreshing after the exuberance of the previous courses.


The Tarte aux Petits Pois was probably the most avant garde dish we ate that evening. A butter rich flatbread supported a purée of mint and peas, dusted with pea tendrils, diced carrots, red onion, and goat cheese. It tasted like nothing so much as a samosa pizza, and it floated as trippingly upon the tongue as a Shakespearean soliloquy.


We ended the savory portion of the evening with Bouillabaisse. As tempting as the lamb stew sounded, we felt a taste of the sea was in order. A pair of giant prawns terrorized us from the steaming bowl, surrounded by a bed of mussels, clams, and cod. The lobster based stock emitted an aromatic bouquet of fennel, saffron, and tomato. We dug in happily like a pair of peasants from Marseilles, and found it marvelous. Though I did have to behead Greg’s prawn for him.


We ended our simple repast with a shared dessert: a lemon tart. With a shortbread crust, an Italian merengue garnish, and a sweet cucumber coulis, it was as bright and refreshing as a morning in spring. I must say, however, and Greg agreed, that it tasted more like lime than lemon. What ever the fruit, it was exquisite.


The food was wonderful, and the staff was, too. We were welcomed at the door and allowed to choose our table. If we left our chair, we came back to find our napkin refolded. Everyone was attentive but non-obtrusive, our server offered forthright recommendations with knowledge and enthusiasm. All in all, it was an exceptional meal: superlative food, great service, and excellent and intelligent company. I think that Julia would approve, and there cannot be higher praise than that.


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Looking up the Dinosaurs’ Skirts

So I went to see the dinosaurs tonight. I told myself that I wouldn’t bother, that I’d avoid the opening weekend crowds, but I heard that “thump… Thump… THUMP!!!” in my head and saw the expanding ripples of water in my mind’s eye, and I was drawn to the Arclight like a… I was going to say like a moth to a flame, but like a Tyrannosaurus Rex to a waving flare might be more appropriate an analogy. I haven’t read any reviews on the movie: like watching Patti LuPone in a musical, the dinosaur movies are critic proof for me.

I have to say that I enjoyed Jurassic World very much. The film certainly has none of the innocent wonder of Jurassic Park, but how could it? First of all, Steven Spielberg didn’t direct it. Against my better judgment, I declare that he really is one of the finest film directors Hollywood has produced, and only Chaplin and Capra really have a leg up on him where innocent wonder is concerned. He is to popular cinematic entertainment in America what Mastering the Art of French Cooking is to the culinary arts in this country, and anyone who knows me is well aware that this is high praise indeed. More importantly, we’ve visited this world before, haven’t we? When that tree trunk moved and we realized we were looking at an Apatosaurus. When we were hounded alongside Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum by an angry T-Rex and we realized that “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” When the Velociraptor poked her head out from behind the electrical wires and Samuel Jackson’s arm dropped out of nowhere like Ben Gardner’s head in Jaws. We’ve seen these things before, and like the visitors at Jurassic World’s eponymous theme park, we demand more.

Jurassic World can’t really be called an original movie, but it’s a truly delightful homage to Jurassic Park. Wisely ignoring the two follow ups to the original, it shares themes, sets, animals, and at least one actor. My greatest worry in seeing the movie was that the best bits were already shown in the trailer, but there is much in the film to delight the eye–even beyond Chris Pratt, but why, oh why couldn’t costume designer Daniel Orlandi dress him in Bob Peck’s short shorts from the original. Was that too much to ask? I won’t spoil anything not in the trailers, but I will say that I shrieked at least once, and must have clutched my pearls five or six times before the movie was over.

bob peck

Jurassic World shares more of Michael Crichton’s cautionary cynicism than does Spielberg’s original: gone is Richard Attenborough’s Disneylike visionary entrepreneur, replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard’s bureaucrat. After 20 years of solid business, the park has to make bigger and bigger dinosaurs to keep attendance up and guests happy: hence the Mosasaurus chomping down on a 25 foot Great White Shark like it was an anchovy–but short of Roy Scheider, an oxygen tank, and a shotgun, what else is gonna get Bruce? The shark can only be a nod to Jaws, the genesis of all summer blockbusters. The scientists in this film are so far past asking themselves “whether [they] should, just because [they] could” that they create a new dinosaur, calling it Indominous Rex–nothing like a nice case of hubris–and making a dino-cocktail of sorts. Needless to say, Indominous escapes its enclosure and hilarity ensues. Well, if you’re part of the Manson family, hilarity ensues. Otherwise, lots of blood and bone crunching. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an arm, eye, leg, head, just choose your body part. Clearly, no one at Jurassic World ever saw the Chiffon margarine commercial.

The film’s supporting characters are what you would expect of a movie of this kind. It has its obligatory children, very similar to those in Jurassic Park. Vincent D’Onofrio plays another bad man. Irrfan Khan is the new park owner, a cross between Jurassic Park‘s John Hammond and Richard Branson. BD Wong is quite good, as usual, but all I could think of watching the movie was have I aged as much as he has in the last 20 years?

I must say, Ms Howard has grown on me a great deal since (or because of) her performance in The Help. I went into the movie hoping she’d be the first to get eaten, but I quite liked her, down to her Tea Leoni in Flirting With Disaster coiffure. She held her own with the CGI, she screamed at the right moments, and worked well within the tropes of her frigid Faye Dunawayesque character. Plus, she managed to keep her hair perfectly styled almost through the entire picture. Joan Crawford would have approved.

Short shorts not withstanding, Chris Pratt shows us once again that he is ready to be Harrison Ford for a new generation. He can play funny or serious, he makes the dialogue sound better than it really is, and he looks really cool motorcycling around the jungle with a bunch of Velociraptors. In truth, I hoped his relationship with them would be more like Born Free, but not everyone can be Joy Adamson and Elsa. Plus, those thighs.


This movie lives and dies, of course, with its dinosaurs, and in this case, Jurassic World is not stingy. From gentle giants like Apatosauri and Triceratops, to vicious Velociraptors, to the imaginary Indominous, you get to see more dinosaurs than you do Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And of course, there’s the T-Rex. What “Jurassic” movie would be complete without him/her/it? I don’t know what’s CGI, what’s models, maybe there’s an island off the coast of Latin America where the damn animals are all frolicking around. Who cares? Dinosaurs are just cool. That’s why these movies work. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

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Potter Revisited


Recently, I saw that the Harry Potter saga was going to be republished, starting in October, in deluxe illustrated editions. The illustrations are quite beautiful, worthy of Doré, John R Neill, Tenniel, or Garth Williams, just short of Pre-Raphaelite stature. The artist’s name is Jim Kay, whose work has been on exhibit at the V&A in London. Upon seeing the pictures, I contacted my friend Becky Glenn, who was my General Manager at Borders in Santa Monica, and who now owns and manages–with her partner, Pete–The Book Frog, an independent bookstore in Torrance, CA. I strongly urge you to visit their store if you are in the area, or their website, if you are not. At the very least, I implore you to support your local independent bookstore; you will find it a far more rewarding and personal experience than a point and click at Amazon. Every experience I have had with The Book Frog has been a pleasant one; they are happy to serve on site or to send on their site. The Book Frog is a place to shop.

For many years, Becky and I read, and reread, and reread again Rowling’s masterpiece–because it really is one work (or 3, if you subscribe to the theory that books 1-3, book 4, and books 5-7 are each their own jumping on/off points)–each year a new book was published, and in-between, and even 2-3 times a year. It’s not that we were obsessed, or anything, we simply enjoyed the books, as sellers, we were part of the overall experience of their publication–the anticipation of each book was as hungry as that of a Dickens serial or an episode of Dynasty in its heyday. (Who doesn’t recall the sight of Alexis and Krystal rolling down the grassy knoll into the decorative pond with anything but a nostalgic ache of fondness?) Working in a bookstore the night the latest Harry Potter was shelved was simply, for lack of a better word, magical.

In the last few years, both Borders and I have left the bookselling world (please don’t buy from Amazon) and I realized, seeing Jim Kay’s rather lovely pictures, that it had been a long time since I had last visited Hogwarts and environs. Texting Becky, I declared my intentions to reread the series. I also declared my intentions to begin en medias res, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Becky responded with enthusiasm, stating that she, too, would reread the books–starting with book 1–and suggesting that we post our findings on her Facebook group, Talk Books with the Book Frog:  Upon completing my reading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I made the following post, which I produce, edited and expanded, for obvious reasons of self-promotion:

Picking up Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was like greeting an old friend after a long absence. This was the book that truly sold me on the series. Yes, Sorcerer’s Stone introduced the wizarding world, and it was captivating: rather than taking the common route of creating a fantasy world of its own, a Middle Earth, a Westeros, an Oz, Rowling created a magical world existing congruent with our own, if we muggles only stopped to think and observe. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the American title, and heretofore referred to as HP1)  magnificently sets the stage for the six to follow, and it is, more than the rest, geared towards its target audience. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (HP2) is my least favorite of the series: while it introduces important characters and plot points–Ginny Weasley, Dobby, the, as yet, unnamed Horcrux, the Whomping Willow, Azkaban–a lot of it reads much like the first book: the Dursleys are mean to Harry, there’s a new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, quidditch is played, Snape is nasty, and Voldemort makes a cameo appearance at the book’s climax in a secret, subterranean chamber. Also–and I say this guiltily, given his sacrifice in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (HP7,) and kind of spoiler alert, but would you really be reading this if you haven’t already finished the series?)–I find Dobby to be one of the more irritating characters I’ve encountered in literature. I finished the book entertained, but not astonished.

HP3 was a different matter; perhaps because the characters were older, perhaps because I’d grown to know them over two books, they were simply a lot more interesting. It was great to see Harry show the Dursleys a little snarkiness, and fantastic to see him blow up the rotten Aunt Marge, even if it was a subconscious gesture. The new characters we meet are all well drawn, from animals like Crookshanks and Buckbeak, to characters as minor as Stan Shunpike and Madame Rosemerta. Characters like Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang are introduced almost offhand, with a subtlety belying the complexity of the saga. It is certainly Hagrid’s shining moment in the series: from his triumph at becoming a teacher to his quasi-tragic experience with his beloved Buckbeak, his character in this book evinces more pathos than the Falstaffian buffoonery typical of him throughout the books. The Knight Bus and the village of Hogsmeade both are brilliant examples of how Rowling brings magic into our world.

Interestingly, this is the one book in the series where Voldemort is an entirely offstage character, though still a constant menace in its characters’ lives. This is the book that introduces the Dementors, characters I believe that Rowling has stated had their genesis in her own battles with depression, the Dementors are: “…among the foulest creatures that walk the earth…they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them…every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you…[t]he dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…” [from the text.] Descriptions like these are evidence of Rowling’s growth as a writer, and HP3 is full of them. The Dementors are, arguably, the most horrifying of her inventions. Of course, the finest introductions the book offers are the typically short-lived Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Remus Lupin, and the eponymous prisoner, Sirius Black.

Almost from the moment the reader meets Lupin, s/he is stricken by his humble heroism: he is the only truly fine DADA teacher the school has in the canon, he is a good teacher, but one who can remember what it was like to be a student. He is among the noblest and, ultimately, most tragic characters in the series. Sirius Black is an offstage menace through much of the book, but in one of Rowling’s typical, yet always surprising, plot twists, proves to be Harry’s good godfather, and a potential source of happiness and well-being in his life outside of Hogwarts. The fact that the entire wizarding world views Sirius as one of Voldemort’s staunchest supporters serves to show how truly little the adolescent protagonists can depend upon the adult world. Even the all but omniscient Dumbledore is fooled, and though a believer in Sirius’ innocence once hearing Harry’s and Hermione’s recounting of what happened in the Shrieking Shack states that the words of two underage wizards would count for little in the adult world.

This is a theme that becomes increasingly important in the series, until by book 7, Ron, Hermione, and Harry realize that all they can really depend upon is one another. The friendship between Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs anticipates the importance of that between our three protagonists. Children have to grow up. It is not for nothing, that our protagonists are 13–entering puberty, becoming adults in some faiths, that they begin to learn this rather unsettling thought. Sirius, Peter, and James depend upon themselves to keep Lupin’s secret, and then James’, just as Harry depends upon Hermione and Ron to help him fulfill his quest. The very fact that James, Sirius, and Remus would embrace such a sycophant as Peter Pettigrew is testament to the innocence of their youth and the strength of their hearts.

Peter’s betrayal is one of the horrifying shocks of the series, and Harry’s merciful response in the shack shows he has a maturity his father’s generation lacked. But the faith, love, and friendship the Marauders have for one another foreshadows that of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Sirius, Remus, and James certainly have a friendship for one another that lasts beyond the grave, as the reader realizes in HP7.   Rowling offers marvelous hints at these character’s identities throughout the book, even their names are clues: Sirius is also known as the dog-star; Remus is one of the twin founders of Rome suckled by a she-wolf. And the name Lupin is one letter short of Lupine, an adjective which suggests a wolfish nature. What does Wormtail describe but a rat’s appendage, and “petty” is just what Pettigrew is, in both size and nature. In short (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha) HP3 is the game-changing book, in my opinion. More than any other, it sets the reader down the road to what’s to come, from the evolving relationship of Ron and Hermione, to the consequences of Harry’s mercy towards Peter, to Trelawney’s second accurate prediction, to the importance of friendship and love, this book delineates Rowling’s goals for the series.

The Movie 

At the millennial change, it is almost dictated that a pop culture literary phenomenon will turn into an omnimedia one. Harry Potter is no exception, with an 8 film series, an official web experience(Pottermore, amongst a myriad of others,) and theme park adventures. But it is the film series that will no doubt live in the minds of the world. It has made celebrities of its youthful stars (Hermione’s going to be Belle and who knew about Neville!!!???) and has ensured that its adult actors are surely immortal in the canon of entertainment (if Maggie Smith is not eternally remembered for playing the Dowager Countess, she certainly will be remembered for embodying Minerva McGonigall.)

It is seldom that a movie is as good as the book it is based upon, and for a movie to be better than its source material is as rare as the philosopher’s (sorcerer’s) stone. Only The Wizard of Oz and Jaws immediately come to mind in that category. Movies generally fall short, but it must be understood that literature and film are very different media. No one will ever make The Great Gatsby as well as Fitzgerald wrote it. Movies based on Hemingway novels are generally crap. Well, pretty much always. Making a good movie from a good book is hard: movies based on William Goldman books are a good example of the craft, but that’s because Goldman usually writes the screenplay, and he’s a master. (The Princess Bride, for example, is a movie that is just as good as the book, but it’s also like Casablanca, a piece of magic: everyone was at the right place at the right time, and it managed to be captured for immortality. To paraphrase Geoffrey Rush’s Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love, “I don’t know how it happens, it just does!”

The best one can hope for in a movie or TV adaptation of a book is that its artists capture the heart and soul of the source. That does not mean it is a reproduction of the book. That is why we have Masterpiece Theatre. No one (at least, no one who knows me,) will argue that the 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited is the apex of television (except I Love Lucy, but I Love Lucy trumps EVERYTHING, let’s just try to forget Mame) but it’s not film, and let’s all try to forget the movie version of Brideshead. (The asses of Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw always excepting.)

For me, HP3 was the first movie that captured the spirit of the books, rather than the letter. Perhaps it was Alfonso Cuaron’s experience in working with teenagers in Y tu Mama Tambien that led to this; Chris Columbus was very much a workmanship director. This movie, in my opinion, made you feel what it was like to be a teenager, the friendships, the hardships, the trauma and the joy. This was a truly cinematic experience: some have criticized the film for giving the dementors flight, but what can be more terrifying than an imperturbable figure approaching you from any side? Depression doesn’t come from one direction. While the first two movies make you feel like you’re entering the world of wizardry, HP3 makes you feel like wizardry is part of your world.

And one must not discount the performances: Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson have grown into their roles, along with their adolescent counterparts. Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltraine  and Alan Rickman are as superlative in their roles as you would expect. (In truth, when I first picked up HP1, I heard Maggie Smith’s voice whenever McGonigall spoke,) but the magnificence of this movie is the Marauders: Timothy Spall as Wormtail, Gary Oldman as Sirius, and–in particular–David Thewlis as Remus Lupin was inspired. This is the film where you really begin to feel the urgency beyond the magic. This is the movie that, like the book, propels you forward.

For me, this is why both rank high in my personal devotion of the saga.

I hope that if you disagree with what I say that you don’t curse me if you’re part of the wizarding world. I’m only a humble muggle, timid and meek like Dorothy Gale (I’m a friend of hers, actually) and just want to share my thoughts. As always, I’m telling you what I think–anything erroneous is all about me.

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Waves of Love from Those Wonderful People Out There in the Dark

I started writing this post in February, and have been looking at it, tinkering with it, and adding to it ever since.  Watching the Academy Awards this year, and clicking, during and afterward, through the electronic diaspora of comments on my phone, I pondered the common denominator in these posts and comments that Birdman (or blah, blah, blah) was the leading contender for best picture for the very fact that it was about show business. I have not seen Birdman and it’s not on my list. For better or worse, I’m just not a big fan of Michael Keaton. (My favorite of his performances is his Monty Python cast impersonation in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.) In any case, this story of Broadway won Best Picture, to no one’s surprise, except perhaps Richard Linklater’s. (Boyhood is another movie I’m unlikely to see, as I’m no fan of children, but Patricia Arquette’s speech was pretty fucking amazing. An unnamed friend has loaned me a screener, but I’m thus far untempted.)

I will admit that I was largely apathetic towards the awards while I watched them, and had only seen two of the major nominees: Into the Woods (really, really good if you haven’t seen it onstage; pretty, pretty good otherwise, but Meryl of the blue hair was stellar, as much as Bernadette Peters will always hold a tender centimeter in the blackness of my heart) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (just heartbreakingly wonderful, Mr Anderson appears to be neglecting Sturges for Lubitsch these days and watching it win the technical awards it won was kind of weird until I realized that Anderson creates his own worlds on earth as well as–or better than– George Lucas creates them in outer space.) Close to a month later, I’m still pretty apathetic to the awards: the most emotionally moving moments of the evening for me were the commercials for the last season of Mad Men and the blind girl watching The Wizard of Oz. (Lady Gaga, though, can certainly sing, and if she can act, I’d love to see her in Funny Girl on Broadway. Also, fucking JULIE ANDREWS!!!) I’ve since seen The Imitation Game, and thought that Benedict Cumberbatch did an amazing job of reprising his astonishingly brilliant performance of Sherlock Holmes. If only Dr Watson had been there before the chemical castration.

Me watching the Oscars

Me watching the Oscars

And can I just say that the awards are getting very commercial without sounding like Charlie Brown? Back in the day when Johnny Carson hosted them, they seemed really grand and important and true, but that might be because the ’70s was the last truly great decade of film. Or, because I was a child, and everything seemed grand and important and true. And are the classic award winners of the past great because they’re great, or because they won awards? Both, probably: How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane for best picture, but I think more people regard the latter more highly. That said, John Ford still holds some caché for the former. So Birdman‘s a headscratcher, but maybe not as egregious as Chariots of Fire over ET, the Extraterrestrial.

Which, in my typically circuitous route, brings me to the awards of 1950.

1950 was the year of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Other movies, too, but really, All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Both movies are about the business of show, one on the east coast, one on the west. Both are beloved and are ranked high in the annals of American film. All About Eve holds the record, with Titanic, as the most nominated film of all time, Sunset Blvd is arguably the greatest film ever made about Hollywood.

bette smokes

You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.

All About Eve may be the most erudite movie ever written: not a word of its screenplay would be out of place at Downton Abbey, even the Dowager Countess would approve. All About Eve romanticizes the bitchiness of Broadway, often mistaken as a drama, it is truly a comedy of manners. Joseph Mankiewicz audaciously uses 3 narrators to tell the story of a viciously ambitious actress. Though not filmed in New York, the movie offers much location shooting to add to its verisimilitude. The film, starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holme, Thelma Ritter, George Sanders, Garry Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, and a scene-stealing Marilyn Monroe, is perfectly cast, and is one of the best ensembles of all time. Bette Davis gives a performance that is equally truthful, bombastic, and honest. Among other Oscars it won the awards for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best costumes, and best supporting actor (George Sanders.)

Who do they come to see? Me...Norma Desmond!

Who do they come to see? Me…Norma Desmond!

Sunset Blvd is often looked upon as black comedy, but it’s truly high tragedy with a hearty sense of humor. It is an indictment of the studio system so dark that at its premiere, Louis B Mayer apocryphally accosted writer/director Billy Wilder with the words ” How dare you do this to the industry that fed you?” to which Wilder succinctly replied “Fuck you.” It is the apex of noir cinema, yet it reaches toward Euripidean tragedy. In many ways it was groundbreaking: no other film before it was narrated by a corpse; it is also the genesis of “grande dame Guignol,” a sub-genre that lasted two decades, showcasing actresses of a certain age in roles both camp and heartwrenching. Mostly Bette Davis. It is not surprising that Sunset Blvd did not fare as well as All About Eve at the Oscars–it does indeed bite the hand that feeds it harder than the shark in Jaws bites Alex Kintner–but Wilder won (with longtime collaborator Charles Brackett and someone called DM Marshman Jr) best original screenplay. Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim lead the cast, supported by Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, and Dragnet’s Jack Webb. Like Mankiewicz, Wilder chose a non-traditional, though linear, narrative, including cameos by real life Hollywood figures such as Buster Keaton, HB Warner, and director Cecil B DeMille, (a conceit Robert Altman homaged in The Player, another ombre Hollywood tale) and filmed largely on location. Sunset Blvd has influenced most films made about the industry since.

Sunset Blvd ranks as 12th in AFIs greatest films of all time, and All About Eve ranks as 16th. My introduction to both was on the Carol Burnett Show, where Carol lampooned both characters with her impeccable aplomb. I saw All About Eve for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school, on a rainy day at the Nuart, in a double feature with The Man Who Came to Dinner. I’d previously seen The Man Who Came to Dinner onstage, and was more excited at the prospect of that, but soon forgot about Kaufman and Hart once introduced to Margot Channing. Once obtaining it on VHS, I watched it in a loop, devouring lines like “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” “Remind you to tell me about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke,” and “I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” I am happy to say that I’ve been able to work all those lines seamlessly into conversation over the last 30 years. I saw Sunset Blvd on the VHS right out of high school and wore it out. I’ve probably seen this movie more than any other, save The Wizard of Oz and Jaws. I often scream, Tourettelike, lines such as “We had faces then!” “Any laws against burying him in the garden?” “Tell him without me, he wouldn’t have any job, because without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount Studios” and, of course, “and now, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” At my first job, I had a co-worker whose name I thought was Max, and I always greeted him with a frantic “Max! MAAAAAXXXX!!!” His name wasn’t Max, by the way, but he never corrected me, and was gracious enough to put up with my screaming. I never did call him anything but Max. Both these movies were anchored by Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, whether an ensemble, such as Eve, or an intimate story, such as Sunset, neither film would be viable without Davis or Swanson.

Margot at the Club Room.

Margot at the Club Room.

And yet, neither Bette nor Norma, I mean Gloria, won the Oscar!

Judy Holiday took home the Best Actress Oscar that year. I bear her no resentment. No, that’s a lie. I bear her a lot of resentment because, as good as her performance was in Born Yesterday, the character of Billie Dawn is not comparable to Margot or Norma. In 2005’s Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the title role, has this marvelous moment of self awareness: “It’s as if [he] and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” In many ways, Margot and Norma are opposite sides of the same coin. Margot’s 40 and Norma’s 50. Anyone in Hollywood–who isn’t Katherine Hepburn or Meryl Streep–will tell you how hard it is to get work once the years pile on. Broadway is more accepting, but it’s still harder. It’s easy to see how each character is obsessed with their diminishing youth, and that while with Margot, it’s ostensibly “paranoic,” with Norma, it becomes the stuff of madness.

Billie Dawn, on the other hand, is a spunky, young, blonde pulling herself up from the bootstraps as she’s tutored by a hunky, hornrimmed William Holden.

You're just not couth.

You’re just not couth.

Speaking of whom… Margot and Norma share another similarity in that they are both involved with younger men. Granted, Margot and Bill are in love with each other, while Norma has Joe stuck in her web like the spiderwoman, but they suffer the same lack of self confidence: for Margot, with her insecurities of aging, it is easy to believe that Bill might stray: “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” Norma’s megalomania precludes her from thinking that her lover could stray from her: “Of course you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t let you.” Whereas Margot and Bill end up together, with Norma and Joe, it never can be.

Margot and Norma are both “aging stars”, but while Margot, on stage, still commands packed houses, Norma, on screen, is but a distant memory to all but the oldest extras and stagehands at Paramount; she has a quixotic vision of playing the teenage Salome as a “triumphant return.”  The stage is more forgiving than the screen: Margot, at 40 is still successfully playing a character half her age. Once again, we see the masks of tragedy and comedy before us. Billie Dawn is a character of depth in a role that was written for Judy Holiday, and Billie experiences great change, rising above an abusive relationship to educate herself, and Judy Holiday is marvelous in the role. But the part could have been played just as well by Ginger Rogers or Shirley Maclaine or Marilyn Monroe, and even Melanie Griffith managed not to embarrass herself in the remake (she was basically replaying her Working Girl role, but still…) But Norma and Margot weren’t written for Swanson and Davis, respectively, and they weren’t the first or even the second choices. That said, and all due respect given to Lauren Bacall and Patti Lupone, it’s truly impossible to picture anybody but Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson in those parts. (Except Carol Burnett.) Their performances are INDELIBLE.

Fasten your seatbelts...

Fasten your seatbelts…


Yet neither Bette nor Gloria took home the Oscar. Anne Baxter would say that this is because Margot is a supporting role, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a protagonist is a character that experiences change in the course of their story, and between Margot and Eve, Margot experiences the greatest change: she becomes self aware and self accepting; she abandons the “barroom, Benzadrine standards of this megalomaniac society” to accept love and to age gracefully. One has no impression that Margot has forgone the limelight at the end of All About Eve, it simply matters less to her because there is more in her life. Bette Davis expresses Margot’s insecurities eloquently, both in her comedic kitchen scene with Gregory Ratoff and Hugh Marlowe and in her raw “Funny business, a woman’s career…” speech with the double-crossing Celeste Holm. Eve is the same character at the end of the film that she was at the beginning, except “successful;” the audience has indeed learned “all about Eve” and we have learned that she is a hollow being. Baxter’s performance is magnificent (and she’d have probably taken home gold, were she nominated for supporting) but she’s not the lead, not the star.

A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.

A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.

Many would argue that Norma Desmond does not change from beginning to end of Sunset Blvd, but her change and Gloria Swanson’s performance is just more subtle than that of Bette’s masterwork in All About Eve. That may be a brash statement given the amount of shouting she does throughout the movie, but it’s the truth. Unlike Margot, Norma is not a sympathetic character: she personifies megalomania, she has a relationship based on sadism and dysfunction with both her faithful butler/husband, and poor (I won’t say innocent, because this is Billy Wilder) Joe Gillis, who ends up like John the Baptist, not beheaded, but still dead, floating in a pool with “two shots in the back and one in his stomach.” We’re watching a slow descent into madness. Margot’s ability to change is what saves her, Norma’s inability to do so is her tragic flaw. Her war cry of “We didn’t need words, we had faces then!” is worthy anything sung on the barricades of Les Misérables. The expression of disgust on Swanson’s face as she brushes away the hated microphone at Paramount Studios is one that can only be envisioned by a silent film actress. The fact that her dilemma is both of her own making and that of the society she lives in makes Norma one of the great tragic heroes of the 20th century: the fact that she can’t accept herself and her age as Margot ultimately does is both her own flaw and the culpability of the business that offers her a living and authenticates her life. This is why Sunset Blvd is a tragedy and All About Eve is a comedy.

“It’s as if [he] and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

And if you’ve read this far, you must like a good shaggy dog story. I have no idea why Judy Holiday won Best Actress over the more deserving Bette or Gloria except that she got more votes. It’s like Bush/Gore, but with actual votes. Many people say that Bette and Gloria cancelled each other out, and that’s how Judy won. It’s another headscratcher. Not as odd as Roberto Benigni winning for Life is Beautiful over Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters, or Marlee Matlin beating out Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married or Siguourney Weaver in Aliens. But a headscracher, nonetheless.

The truth is, does it really matter? Even today, people speak of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd who know nothing of Born Yesterday. But even these films are really known by people of a certain age, cinéastes, and homosexuals like myself. Jaws, Chinatown, and The Godfather are considered classics now. Some people aren’t that familiar with them. I even know people who have never seen The Wizard of Oz. The Fucking Wizard of Oz. Never seen it. Oh, well. I love Norma.  I love Margot. I even kind of like Billie Dawn. They’ll live with me as long as I’m around. Still and all, Gloria should’ve taken home the gold.

Ready for my close up in glorious Technicolor!

Ready for my close up in glorious Technicolor!

As usual, I haven’t bothered researching this post–any errors come from the cobwebs of my mind.

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Going to Pieces

I’ve noticed a trend, of late, at the markets I frequent wherein it has been difficult to find cut-up whole chicken. All I can see are packages of breasts, thighs, and drumsticks, most of which are boned and skinned. That, in itself, is unfortunate, but a dearth of dismembered poultry should not be cause for rending of garments, shearing of hair, and/or cursing unto the heavens like Lear upon the heath. It is perfectly easy to cut up a chicken: all that is required is a good, sharp knife, a reputable pair of poultry shears or a cleaver, and “the courage of your convictions.” It’s as economic as it is practical: if chicken is on sale, you can buy a whole bird for under $9, while finding the pieces individually is more likely to cost you upwards of $14 at a reputable vendor. And everything you don’t use can be saved, should you choose to do so.

Where to cut?

Where to cut?

Prepare your mise en place with the aforementioned instruments of cutting (for the knife, I prefer a 6″ chef’s knife, perfectly sharp, but if you intend to explore beyond cutting poultry to boning it–not a sexual colloquialism–a boning knife is a worthwhile investment, a cutting board (preferably one with a well,) poultry shears or a cleaver (and unless you’re a serial killer or buy your meat en masse, there’s no need to invest in a cleaver,) and paper towels for blotting and drying. Remove your bird from its packaging and dry it well with paper towels. Place it breast side up on your cutting board and pick up a drumstick.

Dangle it the way Cary Grant dangled Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest

Dangle it the way Cary Grant dangled Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest

Letting gravity be your friend, but not defying it, use your knife to cut around the thigh joint of the bird’s torso. In some cases, this will separate the joint in the moment; otherwise, you will have to use your shears to cut the leg from the body. Do the same with the other leg. This is a good time to wash and dry your hands–it’s important to get a good grip (again, in this connotation, NOT a sexual inference.)

Legless, but not drunk

Legless, but not drunk

Now, you must split the breasts (sorry, still not sexy.) Run your knife down the breastbone, slicing as close to the bone as your competency allows. The torso will split a little on its own at this point, looking a little like a Chest Hugger from the Alien franchise. Do not let this intimidate you! Use your shears to split the ribs from the backbone and pull the breasts from the remaining carcass. Save the spine and ribs for stock, as well as the neck.

Save the liver! Always save the liver!

Save the liver! Always save the liver! (Although, none of this is actually liver.)

If you like the offal, save that, too! Never forget that if you “cut the dickens out of [your] finger,” liver acts as a coagulant.

They mostly come out at night. Mostly.

They mostly come out at night. Mostly.

Now you have your bird in quarters, and you can have your way with her, as long as it doesn’t frighten the horses. A quartered chicken works very well for braising or fricaseeing. (I must admit that “fricassee” has always sounded like a sex act to me, but it’s not, really.) You can certainly separate the wings and drumsticks if you plan to fry the chicken, or if you simply want to save those parts for stock. I think that a pan roasted chicken is best done in quarters, though, and I’ve had great success with it.

Ready to cook!

Ready to cook!

So, there’s really no need to be chicken about cutting up a chicken: just give in to the Hannibal Lecter and Sweeney Todd that resides in us all, grab a knife and a cleaver or shears, and cut and chop away! and remember, this works for any bird, be it turkey, goose, duck, chicken, or quail. But I will judge you if you’re so sadistic as to draw and quarter a quail. What are you, Norman Bates? All serial killers aside, with or without Chianti and fava beans, it’s just the way to cook!

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“The plane, the plane!”

The other night I made a post wherein I paraphrased a quote from John Irving’s 1981 novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, and stated:

“It’s easy to keep passing the open windows, but it’s getting harder & harder to keep passing the open tattoo parlors.”  

I didn’t anticipate any responses in particular: it was flippantly typed, perhaps, in the light of recent events, too flippantly in its reference of suicide, but those who know me are aware of at least two things: I have a mordant sense of humor, and I really want to get some more tattoos. I was surprised to see that the comments made about the post referenced the tattoo parlors, and not the suicide associated Irving quote. Perhaps no one who responded had read The Hotel New Hampshire (an error to be corrected by anyone who hasn’t read the book–it’s quite marvelous, as is almost everything he’s written) or listened to the song by Queen (it’s not one of their best known, but it has a catchy tune.) In any case, all the responses regarded the subject of tattoos, and those by one friend in particular were not in their favor. I don’t generally spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook, but today it was something I preferred to consider rather than the beheading of journalists in the desert, Cee Lo’s mind-boggling stupidity and gall, or the latest fuckery of Justin Bieber and Chris Brown. And it occurred to me that I like tattoos and I wanted to come to their defense. And since my blog following reaches strangers who never see my Facebook posts, I decided I would reproduce my Facebook post here. It’s probably more ego than altruism…

One of the most wonderful things about being human beings is our freedom of choice and all of the choices we have available to us. Every one of us reads and appreciates different books, listens to different music, delights in different cuisines, thrills to watching a variety of films and television shows, and we all adorn our bodies in a variety of fashion, manner, and taste. Variety is an integral, even essential part of our lives. Not everyone appreciates tattoos, and that is as it should be. But I believe it must be agreed upon that while there are good and bad tattoos–just as there are good and bad books, movies, tv shows, restaurants, recipes, songs, and artists–tattoos, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad, they simply are. I will neither speak of or judge other people’s tattoos: it is inappropriate for me, or anyone else, to do so.

Speaking of my own, I can only say that they were far from impulsive; I did not get my first until I was over 40, and I chose a reputable tattooist who explained to me the process from beginning to end, clarifying that like any painting or wall, a tattoo requires occasional restoration and care to prevent it from becoming an “unrecognizable blob of regret.” Just as a plant not watered or a pet not fed will wither and die, so will a tattoo that is not occasionally re-inked. My tattoos were far from impulsive, I contemplated their inception for–quite literally–several years before having needle applied to skin. I did not get my first tattoo at any pivotal time of my life, but when I decided it was time. I received my second on the day of Julia Child’s centennial, and chose to have 3 tattoos done at the same time because the first one was no more of an inconvenience than a manicure.

The choices I made for them are no less thought out: symbolic in their own right as an acceptance of mortality, The Deathly Hallows represent twelve years of my life as a bookseller and my inclusion in what is arguably the most phenomenal literary experience of the last 20 years, if not longer.

The Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility

The Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility

Were it within my power, Julia Child would be beatified: she has done more to enhance the tables of our land than anyone currently on the Food Network. Furthermore, she is truly the patron saint of second chances, successfully embarking upon a new vocation at middle age. She is an example to us all and seeing “Ecole Des 3 Gormandes” before me each day is a reminder to me of her fortitude.

The School of the Three Big Eaters

The School of the Three Big Eaters

I have seen The Wizard of Oz more often than any movie ever made, and the sentiment expressed by the immortal and inimitable Judy Garland in her signature song, “Over the Rainbow” is one of wistful optimism and hope. Reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked… allowed me to embrace and admire a character who filled me with nothing but fear for over 20 years, and hearing and seeing performed the song “Defying Gravity” in the same titled musical was to witness an anthem of individuality, of being your own moral compass. Thus, having the mash-up of “Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me… So if you care to find me, look to the western sky” offers me a daily reminder of the importance of hope and integrity.

Wizard meets Wicked

Wizard meets Wicked

Jaws is the first movie I ever saw in a theatre that wasn’t produced by Walt Disney. I have seen it nearly as much as The Wizard of Oz, and have written of it and its importance to me and to the world here and in other places. I have held a love of sharks in my heart for 40 years, and as they continue to live in peril in the sea, I am proud to have my earliest childhood hero a permanent part of me.

This took two hours, and hurt like a motherfucker

This took two hours, and hurt like a motherfucker

Tattoos, at their best, have far greater import than the fashion statement of a tattoo printed t-shirt. They often offer, as mine do, moments, people, and ideas of personal impact. They may be indications of social and societal significance, and in some cultures are even a part of the spiritual/religious mien. Although I am an intensely secular adult, I was raised catholic and can fully appreciate the ritual, even sacramental, experience of being tattooed. In any case, a tattoo harms no one but the person being tattooed, and thus, is really just the business of the person getting the tattoo, as long as they have attained their majority and thought the process through. And even if the individual is a 19-year-old acting out and they realize that a unicorn tramp stamp was not the best idea, what is any mistake but a learning experience? And how do we grow but by learning from our mistakes?

As I stated earlier in what has become a remarkably long post (congratulations if you’ve made it this far) there are good tattoos and bad tattoos. Only bad tattoos are ugly. I hope I’m not being immodest when I state that I am generally a promoter of good taste and that my existing tattoos are, and those yet to come will be, in the best of taste and are an enhancement to my general appearance. I’ve received nothing but complements for them, from people of all ages. Like anything, it can become addictive, and like everything, tattooing should probably approached with the Delphic ideal of “Nothing too Much,” though I must admit that I have always sided with the divine Oscar, who stated “Enough is as good as a meal. Too much is a feast.” Come to think of it, that would make a marvelous tattoo!!

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A Half-assed Autopsy of a Fish: My personal appreciation of Jaws

“Come on in, the water’s fine!”


This morning, my friend Greg emailed me an article from Mother Jones, wherein Richard Dreyfus’ children have a kindly mocking conversation about the film: The title, contained without articles within the link, says a lot about it. I do not begrudge them their sass, and I am not devoid of mockery myself, but I have great reverence for this film, and feel compelled to speak of it. Much has been said of Jaws since its premiere in 1975, and anyone interested in learning more about this movie would be wise to read such books as The Jaws Diaries by Carl Gottlieb (one of the film’s screenwriters) or Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor, or to watch documentaries such as The Making of Jaws (on just about any DVD release of the movie) or The Shark is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws (an exclusive on the recent BluRay release.) What follows is what I want to talk about. If a statment of mine requires citation, it is probably belongs to one of the sources mentioned above.

 I have watched Jaws more than nearly any other movie I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of The Wizard of Oz. The first non-Disney movie I saw in a movie theatre, I saw it for the first time in 1975: in a drive-in, the Mar Vista Drive-In, now no more. Jaws may be a perfect drive-in movie. In my recollections, Jaws was very much a family event. At the age of 5, my memory may well be suspect, as there was also an estrangement between my parents and my hippie-ish, wigwam living eldest sister and brother, but in my mind’s eye, they and my second sister were all present at the Mar Vista. “Jaws, the movie that brought a family together.”   studio_drive-in-01I can only imagine that my presence there was predicated by an inability to accrue a babysitter, but never mind that. At this time in America, children my age were offered free admission to the drive-in, but my siblings were able to convince timid and meek me that our parents were a) sneaking me in and b) were I discovered, they would be summarily arrested and I would be sent to an orphanage. Even before Annie, I know this was to be avoided, and crouched, quivering under a blanket, beneath their knees, until we were safely parked. I am happy to say that the movie terrified them all.


On the other hand, Jaws is one of my first watershed experiences. My family tells me that throughout the film, every time the shark ate someone, I laughed and clapped, and that when it was finally destroyed, I wept inconsolably. Well, I can’t speak to the accuracy of this, but I have always found Norman Bates, Hannibal Lector, Baby Jane Hudson, and Tom Ripley to be perfectly charming, and I really don’t have a problem with the parenting skills of Mommie Dearest, Serial Mom, or Darth Vader, so perhaps my love of Jaws was, indeed, a prelude to my impending misanthropy. In any case, it was the beginning of my life-long love affair with sharks.


Throughout the summer and into first grade, I littered our house and my classroom with pictures of sharks: sometimes with their mouths’ full of human victims. Perhaps I should mention at this moment that I have never murdered anyone. I may be a sociopath, but one must draw the line somewhere. I was indulged: Mrs Milne, my first grade teacher encouraged me to present a shark themed slideshow at the end of the school year. My parents gave me a Jaws themed 6th birthday party, replete with a carcinogenically blue iced cake with the movie’s logo airbrushed onto it and a rubber shark bursting from the icing. My great-uncle Harry, another perenial bachelor, gave me a 3 foot long plush shark, which I slept with until I was 12.

Jaws also replaced Dr Seuss as my choice of bedtime reading: I think this relieved my father, who’d had to read Green Eggs and Ham to me so often that I’d memorized it. He was probably overjoyed to read an adult’s novel to me. Of course, he read from the Readers’ Digest Condensed version of the book (excising the graphic affair between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody) but to me it was marvelous. Of course, I wouldn’t set foot in a swimming pool, let alone an ocean, before I was 10, but oh, how I loved sharks.

I saw the movie for the second time in the late-ish 70s, when my sister Tay (Erin and Chris had comparatively normal names, but George and Martha got a little creative with Tayreze and Padric) took me to a double feature of King Kong (the one with Jessica Lange) and Jaws.


I adored both–if nothing else, I’m a child of my decade–but couldn’t understand why the audience mourned Kong’s death but reveled in the destruction of the shark. At this time in my life, I hadn’t read Moby Dick. My prepubescent attempt at Melville did occur at the age of 10, after seeing the film with Gregory Peck. I think I managed 12 pages. What kind of name is Ishmael, anyway? I finally plowed through Moby after becoming acquainted with the failed West End musical, set in an all girl’s school (???) and read it again after consuming, sharklike, Nathaniel Philbrick’s amazing In the Heart of the Sea (long before Opie decided to make it into a movie with the Australian boy from The Hunger Games) the most unforgettable nonfiction book I’d read since In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (avoid that movie, please.)

In the age of VHS, it didn’t take me long to wear down Jaws into something resembling Bette Davis’ throat after 60 years of cigarettes and gin. More and more catch-phrases entered my–and the country’s–lexicon:

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

“Y’all know who I am… Know how I learn a living…”

“Well, this is not a boat accident! And it wasn’t any propeller; and it wasn’t any coral reef; and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper! It was a shark.”

“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine.”

“Now, if the people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island…”

“Come down here and chum some of this shit.”


“So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

“I used to hate the water…” “I can’t imagine why.”

“Smile, you son-of-a-bitch!”

I upgraded to dvd and bluray, and last year, saw the movie in the cinema for the first time in over 30 years. Hooray for American Cinemateque and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood: if you’re not gonna see Jaws at a drive-in, see it in a movie palace. I’m sure that by 2013, I’ve seen the movie more than 100 times, but it was as terrifying in 2013 as it was in 1975. The audience agreed: screams, laughter, gasps, and shouting out of lines echoed my own. In many ways, this was a validation: while I was not the oldest person in the audience, I was far from the youngest, and people of all ages were GLORIOUSLY terrified. All I’d read or heard of complaints of the hokyness of the “rubber shark” or “how fake it looks” were vilified. Jaws is Jaws is Jaws is Jaws, as Gertrude Stein might say, and what follows celebrates the film and the shark.

At this point, I’m awfully tired. I can make my journey with Jaws last the summer, and I think that’s what I’m gonna do. Just remember, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”more to come.

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Padric’s Mother’s Day Movie Picks

Photos to come…

In the years since Anna Jarvis stepped forward in West Virginia to honor her mother, there have been countless portrayals of mothers in the movies. There have been tragic mothers in movies like Bambi, Sophie’s Choice, and Terms of Endearment; and there have been self-sacrificing mothers in films like Stella Dallas, Imitation of Life, and Places in the Heart. Billie Burke and Myrna Loy have played zany and lovable mothers and Mary Tyler Moore and Gladys Cooper have played cold and withholding mothers. Ms Cooper could be said to have made a career of it. There have been stepmothers wicked and wonderful in movies like Ever After and The Sound of Music and there have been magnificent surrogates in films like Auntie Mame and Tea with Mussolini. Angela Lansbury and Julianne Moore played mothers who were a little too close to their sons, and Naomi Watts and Robin Penn recently were a little too close to their sons’ best friend, respectively, though I haven’t seen that film. The following five movies all feature mothers in pivotal, if not central, roles, and are my choice for Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis would most likely be horrified.

Aliens (1986, 1992 Special Edition)

“Get away from her, you bitch!”

Aliens is that rare breed of animal: a sequel that is as good as the original movie. While Ridley Scott’s film focuses on the claustrophobic “old, dark house” genre of horror, Mr Cameron’s is decidedly action-adventure: as he-no stranger to hyperbole-puts it “two-and-a-half miles of bad road.” The cast, full of such Cameronians as Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, and Jenette Goldstein, are uniformly strong, but the movie is ruled by its Ellen Ripley: Sigourney Weaver. Tough mothers are no strangers to James Cameron’s movies, but in the hands of Ms Weaver, Ripley has onion peel layers of character absent in his other films.

Aliens begins 57 years after Alien, when Ripley is discovered drifting in a cryogenic sleep by a salvage team, who are notably less concerned about her well-being than they are the fact that they have missed the opportunity at a payload because she is alive. This conflict between humanity and commerce (often as the front man for the military) is an important theme in the Alien franchise. Demoted and degraded by The Company because she detonated their inter-space oil rig, Ripley is severely traumatized by her experience on the Nostromo-“I’m not going back, and I wouldn’t be of any use to you if I did”-and grief stricken by the death of her daughter: “I told her I’d be home for her birthday…her eleventh birthday.” The down-on-her-luck Ripley is given an offer she can’t refuse: The Company offers to reinstate her, if she returns to the planet where she encountered the Alien: the colony there has broken communication with them.

Naturally, Ripley returns, and naturally, things get fucked up pretty quickly, but before the aliens reappear en masse, she grudgingly  earns the respect of male dominated Marine environment of the mission, becoming its defacto leader. Ripley meets Newt, the orphaned, sole survivor of the colony. Ripley’s relationship with Newt is the heart of the film: Carrie Henn-far less annoying than the average child actor-as Newt, is initially skeptical of the adults’ ability to protect her, but Ripley wins her over. Weaver truly plays the mother here, protecting Newt as she can from the horror of the place, washing her face, comforting her in her sleep. Ripley fights like a tiger to save them both from the face huggers in the movie’s most terrifying, smothering scene, and risks her life to save Newt from the Alien Queen.

Speaking of the Alien Queen, Ripley is not the only mother in the movie. The climax commences when Ripley emoliates the dozens of eggs lain by the Queen. The Queen is a mother herself, and while we will probably side with humanity when Ripley is Artemis to her Niobe, the Queen is more Medea than Niobe, a stowaway on the shuttle to the Sulaco, seeking her own vengeance for her brood. But the heart still sides with Ripley bellowing the above epigram that was so brilliantly paraphrased by JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when (another mother) Molly Weasley cries “not my daughter, you bitch!” before downing Bellatrix LaStrange. And yet, it was passion, not logic, that did not stay Ripley’s hand. The Queen would have let her leave with Newt, one mother on behalf of another. It was only Ripley’s need for vengeance that realized the “kill or be killed” denouement.

Those who have continued their sojourn through the Alien franchise will realize the irony of motherhood in the latter films, but Weaver’s performance in Aliens is heartfelt and honorable: the film academy itself honored her, with an Oscar nomination in a genre normally bereft. A truly magnificent film, Aliens shows that a woman can be strong, vulnerable, and maternal at the same time. A mother to be celebrated, indeed.

Psycho (1960)

“Mother…what is the expression? She isn’t feeling herself today.”

The most infamous mother in the history of cinema was never seen onscreen: not really, or, if at all, only as a desiccated, taxidermied skeleton. One can only see Psycho for the first time once, it’s like Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back that way. Mother is Rosebud, Mother is Father. But, unlike the aforementioned films, the great reveal is only a small but significant part of the film, not the movie’s great gasp.

The great horror, the great gasp of Psycho begins a third through the movie, when Mother stabs Marion Crane to death in the shower. For me, at ten, it was horrifying: not the violence, in the age of Jaws, The Godfather, Halloween, and Taxi Driver, but the fact that the star of the movie was killed. And, whether or not you ever saw the knife hit the body, it was pretty terrifying. Janet Leigh never took another shower. But I liked Marion Crane, thief that she was, and then she was a bloody mess at the bottom of a bathtub. And the mother did it. That was a change. That was a shocker. And then she killed the detective. From Archie’s Place. And it turned out to be Tony Perkins, all along. In his mother’s dress, because, why not?

There’s a lot of psychiatric mumbo jumbo about why Norman did what he did, spouted by the racist cop from West Side Story, but it’s pretty much filler until you see a blanketed Perkins sitting in holding, and that voice spouting on about hurting a fly, and a skull superimposed upon his face, and it’s pretty damn unsettling.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

“If she doesn’t like you…she can make you disappear.”

I have no idea to what extent Christina Crawford was truthful in her depiction of her childhood, but I can say that I never cared for Joan Crawford before seeing Mommie Dearest. The film is best served by viewing it as drama: at its best, it is Hollywood grand Guignol, at its worst, it is camp not worthy of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

From its opening moments, it should be clear that the germaphobic, Silkwood scrubbing Crawford had no business adopting a child. Better she should have chosen Howard Hughes. Loofah on the face followed by alcohol thawed ice at 5am doesn’t spell luck in parenthood. But then, as now, babies make a grand accessory, if you’re allergic to Chihuahuas.

While it’s certainly horrible to be beaten with wire hangers (ever) and forced to clean your bathroom in the middle of the night by a mother costumed like a Kubuki Lion, I have to say that I sympathize with Joan during much of the film. As commentator John Waters points out, Christina wouldn’t have had a better rearing by the nuns in a Catholic orphanage, and Joan certainly had an awful time of things careerwise during Christina’s formative years. Hollywood was harder in the 40’s on its actresses than it is today, and in the years of the studio contract, “box office poison” (“Tina, bring me the axe!”) trumped “Hollywood Royalty” any day of the week.

Joan Crawford should probably have never been a parent. Whether she was motivated by love or publicity is unimportant, the character of “Joan” went beyond the pale in domestic discipline. No child should face their mother spinning around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist as she tries to strangle her, simply because she doesn’t treat her mother with respect she’d get “from a stranger on the street.”

That said, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”

Now, Voyager (1942)

“I think you’d be ashamed to be… Miss Charlotte Vale.”

I stated before that Gladys Cooper made a career of playing the bad mother, but never did she do so with such vim and vigor as she did in Now Voyager, where she treats her youngest, ugly duckling daughter, Charlotte, as an unpaid servant. Bette Davis, as Charlotte elevates the film from a potboiler, turning the lighting of two cigarettes in her costar Paul Heinreid’s mouth from a pedestrian act to a moment of oral sex.

Charlotte has a breakdown and is sent by her psychiatrist (the foxy Claude Raines) on a South American cruise, where she meets and has a brief affair with married architect Jerry (Paul Heinreid). When she blames her independence for her mother’s death, she becomes acquainted with Jerry’s ugly duckling daughter, only to be rebuffed when Jerry is made aware of their relationship. charlotte convinces Jerry that she can parent his child; when he questions what will become of their love, she replies “Let’s not ask for the moon, Jerry, we have the stars!” and smokes another connubial cigarette.

I don’t know what to say about this movie, but the actors make it work. Gladys (my grandmother’s name, but she was the nicest Gladys imaginable and in no way a wall flower: she made bathtub gin) Cooper plays the worst of all possible mothers. Claude Raines makes his sardonic gravitas seem reasonable: really, what psychiatrist could keep his license when he allows his patient to essentially adopt her lover’s daughter (who also happens to be his patient)? Paul Heinreid plays on his nobility in  Casablanca in the part of kind of a heel, who maybe will, maybe won’t commit to the woman he loves.

But, Bette Davis, Bette Davis, Bette Davis!!! She runs the gamut of human emotions; not like a star, as in All about Eve; nor as a grotesque, as in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but as a human being. And she triumphs in motherhood, as ill advised as it is, a role to which she has no good experience. Where Joan Crawford is the consummate Hollywood star, Bette Davis, was, is, and always will be the greatest actress of the Golden Age.

Serial Mom (1994)

“Don’t say hate, dear. Hate is a very serious word. Scrambled eggs, anyone?”

Beverly Sutfin takes being a mother seriously.

Don’t cross her.

Dottie Finkel receives obscene phone calls because she steals a parking place. “Pussywillows, Dottie?”

The math teacher dies because he questions her parenting capabilities: “You’re doing something wrong, Mrs Sutfin.” Run down with gum in his mouth. Twice.

Misty’s boyfriend dies because he was fucking Tracy Lords: Don’t forget to flush! His liver is harvested at the urinal.

The Sterners are stabbed by scissors and crushed by an air conditioner because they abuse dental hygiene.

Mrs Jensen wouldn’t rewind. “Lick momma’s feet, make ’em all wet!”

Scottie wouldn’t fasten his seatbelt. And Camel Toes.

Beverly Sutfin celebrates motherhood. Muhammed Ali is wrong. He is not the greatest of all time. Beverly is the G.OAT. Do not cross her.

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Uppercrust forever

“We’ll behave, Mary Poppins, we promise.”

“That’s a pie crust promise: easily made, easily broken.”

Tuppence a bag

Tuppence a bag

As usual, the practically perfect Mary Poppins is right. Pie crusts are like the martini of the pastry world: their very simplicity belies a complexity of manufacture that has broken many a chef.

A basic pie crust contains 4 ingredients: flour, shortening, salt, and a binding liquid. A sweet crust may include sugar, and a tart crust–or pate sable–generally includes an egg yolk, as well. Other crust recipes may include ingredients as varied as ground almonds, vanilla, baking powder, or even vinegar. The type of flour, shortening, and liquid may change as well, depending upon your interest or the recipe, but generally, pie crust can be made with ingredients you probably  have in your pantry, barring an intolerance for gluten or dairy.

Shortening is any fat rendered solid. As a shortening element for pie crust, lard is the traditional ingredient, but today, pie crust is more commonly made from vegetable (hydrogenated) shortening or butter, or a combination thereof.

The ingredients listed below will make a double crust pie:

2 1/2 cups of flour
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, vegetable shortening, or lard-diced into tablespoon sized pieces and chilled
3 T COLD crème fraiche, heavy cream, sour cream, buttermilk, or iced water-plus more, as needed
1 tsp salt (or a pinch, if you’re making a sweet crust)
1 tsp sugar (if you’re making a sweet crust)

Before the machine age, pastry was mixed by hand. This is why Mrs Patmore is always in a bad mood. If you choose to blend your pie dough by hand, sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the shortening and mix until blended into coarsely shaped pea sized lumps. To do this, you may use 2 knives held scissor fashion, a fork, a pastry blender, or even your hands, if your circulation isn’t what it should be. What you want to avoid is warming the butter as you blend it: this will toughen your crust. Or, you may behave as any civilised person would, and blend the flour and butter in your food processor.

Add COLD butter cut into tablespoons

Add COLD butter cut into tablespoons

If you do not have a food processor, buy one. It will slice 8 cups of onions for you, if you’re making French Onion Soup; it will grate Gruyère, if you’re making a Quiche (or French Onion Soup Gratinee); and it can be used to chop meat, if you refuse to buy food grinder. There are many brands on the market now, but Cuisinart is a pioneer in the field; I have had mine for over 20 years, and it is as strong today as the day I bought it.

Coarse, pea sized

Coarse, pea sized lumps

To make pie crust in a food processor, add the dry ingredients to the bowl and pulse 3-5 times to blend. Add the shortening–I favour an all butter crust, some say that shortening will provide the flakiest one, and Julia generally made a crust that combined butter and vegetable shortening–and pulse up to 20 times, until the butter and shortening are blended into coarsely shaped, pea sized lumps.

At this time, you may add the liquid. I favour crème fraiche or heavy cream. Whatever you use, it must be COLD.  Stir to mix, if you are a Luddite, or pulse 6-9 times to blend. If the dough is too dry, add cold liquid, a teaspoon at a time, until it just binds. If it is too sticky, add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Don’t overblend, though, as this will toughen the crust.

Pulse until just combined

Pulse until just combined

It should just stick together when you pinch it!

It should just stick together when you pinch it!

Remove the dough to a floured pastry board or silicone rolling mat, and gently knead 2-3 times with the heel of your hand to ensure it is fully combined. Separate it into 2 parts, 1 twice the size of the other, and gather each into a ball. Flatten each ball into a disc, and tightly wrap in cellophane.

Refrigerate for at least an hour, our you'll be sorry...

Refrigerate for at least an hour, our you’ll be sorry…

Refrigerate for at least an hour, or as long as two days. Or you may wrap it in 2 layers of aluminum foil and freeze it for up to 2 months. Thaw it in the refrigerator before using. If you refrigerate it longer than 2 hours, allow it to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling it out.

Using your floured silicone baking mat (by now, you will have purchased one, along with your Cuisinart) roll the larger disc out to a 12 inch diameter, gently rotating it on the mat to ensure that it doesn’t stick. You may need to dust your rolling-pin, and/or the dough, with more flour. To move it to your pie plate, you may either roll it around your pin and gently reroll it into your pie plate or fold it into quarters and gently unfold it into your pie plate. While it’s settling into the pie plate, roll out the smaller disc.* Fill the pie plate, and cover the filling with the top crust. Crimp it rustically or elegantly, depending upon what type of pie you are making. It’s lovely to brush the top crust with an egg wash. Cut air vents into the top crust. If you like, dust it with sea salt or sanding sugar before baking. Bake the pie until done.

Don't forget the vents, or use a pie bird. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag!

Don’t forget the vents, or use a pie bird. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag!

With practice, your pie crust will be better than Mary Poppins: it will be perfectly perfect in every way!

Mary says, "Don't overblend, our your crust will be tough."

Mary says, “Don’t overblend, our your crust will be tough.”

*Pre-baking a single crust pie crust will be addressed at another time.

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Samosas: Pied, Not Fried

While a samosa is more properly a dumpling than it is a pie, these traditionally triangular puffs of golden goodness filled with vegetables and the spices of the east can conceivably be compared to a fried pie or empanadas. Though originally of Middle Eastern origin and still popular throughout the Middle East and South East Asia, samosas are most commonly associated with India. The samosa is most commonly fried, but in the false economy of the 20th century’s paean to “healthy eating,” they are sometimes now served baked. Thinking of them in these terms, I thought samosas to be entirely suitable for a pie.


While their filling might be composed of lamb, chicken, or even beef, samosas are most popularly vegetarian, and as such, the pie I propose has the versatility to serve either as a delightful center to a meatless meal or as an accompaniment to a delightful meat entrée. As with any pie, there will be a crust and a filling. My samosa pie uses a basic short crust filling, although I substitute yoghurt for sour cream in the liquid of the dough. Of course, water may be added as needed. Make enough for a 2 crust pie, using the food processor method, separate into 2 discs of varying sizes, and chill for a minimum of two hours, or up to overnight. Or, it can be frozen, and completely thawed in the refrigerator before rolling.

Cook it until it's done.

Cook it until it’s done.

The ingredients of your filling can be whatsoever you choose, a vegetarian samosa usually is composed of potatoes, carrots, and peas, and such are used in this dish, along with onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, curry, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Dice a green chile into the mix if you choose. Coarsely chop a potato and a carrot, and boil until soft. Mash thoroughly. Dice  a few potatoes, a few carrots, and an onion or two, and sauté in a little neutral oil fortified with ghee until crisp tender. Toss in some minced garlic and all the other herbs and spices, and sauté until soft. Stir in the mashed potato and carrots and add some fresh or frozen peas. Cook for a few minutes and taste for seasoning. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Bake to a golden brown.

Bake to a golden brown.

Roll out the dough and line a standard pie plate. Roll out the top crust. Fill the pie, and cover, sealing the two layers. Brush with an egg wash, and bake in a 375° oven until it is fully cooked, around 40 minutes.

This pie is a delightful accompaniment to tandoori chicken, which requires a tandoor oven to cook, and that is equipment that may not be held in every household. A good charcoal grill and a well seasoned baking stone offer a well informed substitution.

The first turning

The first turning

I used skinless and boneless chicken breasts, marinating them overnight in a concoction taken from Bittman’s Best Recipes in the World, 1st edition, 3rd printing, pg 291; including yoghurt, curry, paprika, ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt, and cayenne to taste.

Heat your charcoal grill until hot, add more charcoal, and top with your baking stone. Heat it until it’s HOT, HOT, HOT. While heating the grill, you will have brought your breasts to room temperature. When you can’t stand to hold your hand above the stone, oil it and hurl the breasts upon it. After 3-4 minutes, turn them and grill them until they reach an internal temperature of 165°, turning as needed. to evenly cook.

The fires of Hephaestus

The fires of Hephaestus

Plunge them immediately upon a bed of spinach. This will nicely wilt the spinach beneath.

The grill can then be used to cook na’an, if you added sufficient fuel at the beginning.

Standing over a hot grill as you create your tandoorish chicken is thirsty work, and I find that my Mumbai Fizz is a delightful thirst quencher. The Mumbai Fizz is an utter bastardization of the French 75. The French 75 dates back to the Great War, and is named for the large French cannon. It is a drink that shares the commonality of the French and the British, combining gin and champagne, tempered with lemon juice and simple syrup. Essentially, it’s a Tom Collins made with sparkling wine instead of sparkling water. To give the drink the taste of the subcontinent, I substituted lime for lemon and added ginger syrup to the mix. Garnish the drink with a slice of lime and a piece of candied ginger, and it’s a Mumbai Fizz. Most satisfactory.

The Waters of Thirst

The Waters of Thirst

Samosas are generally served with chutney, and a hot cool mint chile chutney is really the best. Puree fresh mint, green chile, sugar, salt and lime juice in the processor. Drizzle around your slice of pie at serving.

Bon Apetit!

Bon Apetit!

Raita is a part of any Indian meal, and is yoghurt, garlic, cumin, and what you choose, be it tomato, shredded carrot, or–the most common ingredient–cucumber. Mint is always a nice addition. It’s lovely on top of the tandoori chicken. A dry peanut chutney adds a cunning crunch to the dish. Toss some roasted peanuts, cumin, coriander, and chile into a processor with a little garlic, and grind it coarse-fine. Layer it on top of the raita.

If you choose to serve wine with this meal, make it a bold red, or continue down the road with the Mumbai Fizz. Beer is always a good choice with Indian food. Be sure to have extra raita on hand for dipping your naan. My final judgment on the pie: an authentic, fried samosa is better, but if you’re in a hurry or suffering delusions of “healthy cooking” the samosa pie is a judicious substitution.

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