My brother has a great new article up on his blog about the Beer Renaissance. As usual he hits the nail right on the head.
Selma, Paramount Pictures (2014)
In his book about the motion picture business, Adventures in the Screen Trade¸ screenwriter William Goldman describes, among other things, the life of an executive at a major motion picture studio. Typically former Hollywood agents and managers, studio execs have remarkably short half-lives in their positions for one simple reason: nobody knows anything.
This is Goldman’s ultimate thesis, that nobody knows anything of what movies people will go see one, two, or up to five years down the road, which is when most ideas for movies begin to germinate. It’s the studio exec’s job to play astrologer and attempt to predict what movies are going to make money, but it rarely works. When it does the results can be tremendous and that’s what makes people in Hollywood rich and powerful and envied. But for every Avatar or Titanic or Frozen that gets made and makes a billion dollars you’ve got a hundred movies like Stealth, Heaven’s Gate, Speed Racer, Town and Country, The 13th Warrior, Mars Needs Moms, Sahara, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, The Alamo, and Cutthroat Island, which – unadjusted for inflation – lost a combined total of $1.1 billion.
It’s because of this extreme potential for failure that most movies produced now fall into one or more of three “safe” categories: comic book movies, remakes, historical dramas. By comic book movies Goldman means any movie with a clearly defined hero who is above reproach, a villain who is beyond remorse, and absolutely no alternate outcome than the obvious. Remakes are safe because they already have a built in audience, potentially. But it’s the last category that our film today finds itself in: the historical drama.
Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay (for whom this is only her second feature film as director) focuses on the events preceding the famous protest march for voting rights led by Martin Luther King from Selma, Alabama, to the capital in Montgomery. The film features a lot of fine acting by a lot of British actors (including the chameleon Tim Roth as reviled Alabama governor George Wallace) doing a lot of solid American accents. Unfortunately, it also features a horrendously poor structure that makes the film’s two hours and seven minutes feel like Boyhood’s two hours and forty-five.
Scenes of intense violence and tragedy are followed by uninteresting history or civics lessons, followed by more violence and tragedy, followed by torturously slow scenes depicting martial dysfunction, then more V&T, then plot exposition… Etcetera. A familiar rising action, climax, falling action plot structure is not to be found and it is sorely missed. The filmmakers attempted to manufacture one, however, but did so at the cost of accuracy. Their attempt to provide a turning point for the film came from the relationship between King and President Lyndon Johnson.
In the film, Johnson is more interested in his War on Poverty than in King’s voting rights issue and refuses to lend his support to the cause and to the march. The story even goes as far as to show Johnson actively obstructing the cause, ordering FBI surveillance and interference. Johnson’s change of heart after meeting with the astoundingly racist Governor Wallace is the closest thing the film has to a turning point, though it comes very late in the story.
Those who were present for these events say that this was the only inaccurate aspect of the movie; that otherwise it was right on point. Which is nice to know. It explains the films poor structure. The events of the Civil Rights Movement probably didn’t play out like a Hollywood movie. Heroes are not so clean cut (King himself was a notorious philanderer, a fact that the film did address), and a villain’s motives are rarely so simple (though you’d never know that from the remarkably obtuse dialogue of the film’s racists). The efforts of King and others were torturously long, meticulously planned protests that did not possess the familiar plot arc of a movie. Real life within great struggle is simply far too messy for that.
This is all great news for studio execs, though. Remember, they’ve got statistically short shelf lives, more than anything they are trying to save their jobs and a wonderful excuse for why a movie didn’t open or didn’t play well is to blame the source material. Doing so insulates them from blame and deflects it not on another person, but on history. And who can argue with history? This is one of two reasons, Goldman says, that most movies made are based on some kind of source material. (The other reason, he says, is that’s really, really hard to come up with something entirely new.)
So while I applaud the producers and director of Selma for being as true to the truth as possible, I can’t say that in doing so they made a great film. They made a (mostly) honest movie about a period of American history that is marred and important and it will be a wonderful tool for social studies classroom all over the country. Though little else.
The above quote was taken from in an interview with George Will, American conservative pundit and author, during a segment of Ken Burns’s documentary Baseball. I found myself thinking about it this morning, February 2, the morning after Super Bowl XLIX. (The segment of the documentary in which this quote appeared concerned the ways in which baseball is superior to football both as a sport and as a national pastime. For my money, football will never be the national pastime, no matter how hard the NFL crams it down our throats. If you want to know why it won’t be then you should read our award-winning article creatively titled “Baseball” from April of 2013.)
The end of yesterday’s Super Bowl, number XLIX (49), where the New England Patriots beat the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks by a score of 28—24, was a master class in bonehead decision-making. For those of you who did not see it, here’s how the final few moments of the game went down:
First, another Super Bowl miracle catch (see David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII and Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI), this time Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse for 33 yards, where the ball bounced around so wildly off various parts of various people that no one (probably even Jermaine Kearse) knew whether or not it had hit the ground or not. The catch put the Seahawks on the 5-yard line where they handed it off to much touted and tight-lipped Marshawn Lynch who got them four more yards with three downs left to play.
Here’s where things unraveled: on 2nd down and goal Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seahawks, in consultation with possibly 10 of the team’s other 24 coaches (that’s right, it takes 25 people to coach a professional football team) but definitely following the advice of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, elects to throw the ball instead of handing it off again to Lynch who is having, arguably, one of the best seasons of his career.
I’ll repeat that. Instead of handing it off to a guy who ran for 1,306 yards all season, with an average of 4.7 yards/carry and 13 touchdowns, they choose to throw it all three feet to Ricardo Lockette. Except the ball didn’t get to Ricardo Lockette, instead it was intercepted at the one-yard line by reserve rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler. It was the first interception of his career.
Super Bowl 49 was a very good game and a far better one than we endured last year when the Denver Broncos folded like a cheap suit. There weren’t too many flags, no embarrassingly blown calls that I can think of (though instant replay manages to weed out most of those), and a lot of very well executed plays. At times it seemed like the teams were simply following advice given out by sports talk radio and both teams enjoyed a lot of success as a result, which was why the score was so close. In short, it was a really good game to watch and so I paid attention, something I have trouble doing during most Super Bowls not featuring the Giants.
But then there was that last play, which kind of sours the whole thing. No one’s going to talk about the great successes that were on display during Super Bowl 49. Even Kearse’s tremendous catch will be immediately followed up by discussion of Bevell’s Boner (it’s a name I’m working out, drawing inspiration from Fred Merkle). Malcolm Butler, in the end, won’t even get that much credit for reading the play accurately and positioning himself to make that fateful interception. Ricardo Lockette is already getting flack (publicly, I might add) from Darrell Bevell, the guy who made the bad call in the first place. And because of all this I can add another notch in the bat for why baseball is better than football: baseball celebrates success while football highlights error.
A baseball game, without a clock, is yours to lose, said one time minor leaguer and former governor of New York Mario Cuomo. And he’s right, but even when you do lose you have the opportunity to blame the excellence of your opponent instead of the faulty outcome of a committee meeting.
Eighteen days until pitchers and catchers…
“There’s so much about the game that appeals to the intellectual and to the psyche; the symmetry of it, the orderliness of it, the justice of it…the fact that it throws off other controls. It’s greater than time strictures. In the other sports you have time — you have to play against the clock, and when the clock runs out your chance is over. No clock in baseball. You play until you lose, and if you can keep that rally alive, if you can keep going, if you can keep getting hits you can play until a week from now. Nothing stops you. There is no parameter that makes it impossible for you to perform still more excellently.” — Mario Cuomo
Whiplash, Sony Pictures Classics (2014)
Anyone who’s watched Ken Burns’s celebrated documentary Jazz knows something of the tenuous relationships between genius and sanity and self-destruction. Sidney Bechet, one of the great early clarinetists and saxophonists, once started a gunfight in the middle of Paris after another musician accused him of playing the wrong cord. Clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw was married eight times, one of those times to Hollywood’s Lana Turner who suffered a near-breakdown from his emotional abuse. Benny Goodman, the anointed King of Swing, was a demanding taskmaster, staring down his musicians with what they called “the ray” when he felt they weren’t performing up to par. Billie Holiday, the great Lady Day, who grew up in utter poverty and worked as a prostitute in her early teens, essentially drank herself to death mixing in as much heroin and promiscuity as she could manage in her 44 years.
And then there’s Charlie Parker. The title of Most Important Person in Jazz History is a hotly debated topic, but for many people it’s simply a duel between Parker and Louis Armstrong. Parker is hands down, however, the greatest saxophonist of all time. That is inarguable. A raging alcoholic and heroin addict, Charlie Parker died on March 12, 1955, from a combination of pneumonia, bleeding ulcers, cirrhosis, and a heart condition. The coroner who examined Parker’s body afterwards estimated his age as somewhere between 50 and 60. He was 34 years old.
Parker is a legend, the embodiment of the results of hard work and perseverance married with talent. He is also the thematic center of the fantastic film Whiplash starring actor/musician Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in an undoubtedly Oscar winning role. Simmons plays Terrance Fletcher, a tyrannical conductor of the highest-level jazz band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a drumming student who Fletcher singles out and then terrorizes.
The story itself is initially familiar. It harkens back to such cinematic tour-de-forces like MTV’s Varsity Blues, where Jon Voight’s Coach Kilmer abuses and humiliates his players all in the name of victory. Similarly here, Fletcher physically and emotionally abuses his musicians entirely without remorse or apology. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” he tells Neiman at one point in the film.
As precedence he uses a semi-apocryphal story about Charlie Parker who had a cymbal thrown at him by drummer Jo Jones (of the Count Basie Orchestra) when the 16-year-old Parker couldn’t keep up during a live jam session. I say semi-apocryphal because, according to many sources, the event did happen. Except in the movie it was said the cymbal came at Parker’s head nearly decapitating him, when in fact it landed safely at his feet with an embarrassing clang. Following the tossed cymbal was the laughter of most if not all the patrons and musicians in Kansas City’s Reno Club that night, which provided Parker with the motivation to hole himself up and practice until he could come back a year later and blow everyone’s socks off. Which he did and in doing so changed the nature and the direction of jazz forever.
It’s from this story that Fletcher derives his ability to convince himself that there are no boundaries in his world. Nothing is forbidden so long as the result is musical greatness. His unshakeable belief in this would normally make him a wooden, two-dimensional character but not in the hands of Simmons. Few actors, especially big stars, are willing to turn themselves inside out in an effort to create a truly dislikeable character. Had this been any other actor the picture would have fallen flat on its face.
Two other elements of Whiplash set it well apart and above other, trite teacher/student, David/Goliath movies. The first is the student’s devotion. Neiman is willing to do, not “just about anything,” but anything at all for his art. He never really needs convincing. He’s on board from day one, even if it is torture he endures. His devotion even includes standing up to Fletcher in a manner you normally find toward the end of lesser films. Here it happens early and (creatively) without success.
The second and most important element is the ending, which was essentially perfect (you really should have stopped reading at this point if you haven’t seen the movie):
With both Fletcher and Neiman kicked out of Shaffer (Neiman expelled because of Fletcher, Fletcher dismissed after a supposedly anonymous complaint filed by Neiman of which Fletcher is fully aware), Fletcher invites Neiman to play in a band he’s conducting at a Carnegie Hall festival. Emphasizing the importance of the musical talent scouts in the audience, Fletcher sets Neiman up to fail by changing the set list on him. Unable to play the first number, Neiman skulks off stage and into the loving arms of his father (Paul Reiser) who is ready to take him home.
At this point we think Fletcher has won, and that Neiman will learn a valuable lesson about betrayal and how to find meaning in his life in something other than music and maybe come out a stronger person for it. But the movie is better than that. Neiman turns around, walks back on stage, and starts to play, essentially taking over the band. It now becomes a duel between the teacher and the student, status shifting back and forth until Neiman launches into a (no kidding) nine-minute drum solo during which the two men become synchronous.
As we sit there and watch him play we think back to all the abuse and pain issued forth by the teacher and all the monomaniacal, alienating behavior of the student. Two people obsessed with the same objective, the only difference between is them is that one is the master and the other the pupil. You see Fletcher as a young musician getting the same abuse from a former teacher, and you see Neiman in the future throwing his own cymbal at some other saxophonist who can’t hack it. It’s in these nine minutes that you realize this isn’t a movie about a mean teacher and the student who gets his revenge; it’s nothing as petty as that. This is a movie about the probable necessity of insanity and self-destruction for the sake of musical genius and the pursuit of great art, the pursuit of jazz.
And that ended up being so much more interesting.
People newly on a diet often try to give you advice on how to lose weight. This advice makes up, as far as I can tell, 83% of the all Internet blogs. No one necessarily asks for it, though if obesity statistics are to be believed, a great many Americans are in need of it. Armed with their newfound lifestyle, many people take to the World Wide Web to share what they themselves have only recently discovered.
Sorry to pile on…
Room Temperature Water
Drinking more water is the first thing that all diets emphasize. Water is good for you. It’s the essence of life. I’m sure you all know this but here’s some perspective: Human beings can survive for weeks without food. Mahatma Gandhi, at the ripe old age of 74 and not exactly a XXL to begin with, survived for 21 days of total starvation. Other documented studies have seen cases where people survived without food for 40 straight days. The average for most people, though, is Gandhi’s three weeks.
Without water? You’ve got three days. That’s it. You basically are, whether you realize it or not, a meat bag of water propped by hardened calcium. Anyone remember the scene from 1966’s Batman: The Movie where The Penguin dehydrated people into dust? Or maybe you remember this far more phenomenal scene from Breaking Bad. If you don’t have the two minutes to watch it, Walt’s assistant tells him that the human body is made up of 63% hydrogen and 26% oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water and 63 and 26 add up to 89. You’re approximately 89% water.
There’s a problem with water, though: it’s tasteless and most people prefer to have the things they bother to eat and drink have flavor of some kind. They make all kinds of crap you can put in it now, flavored powders and liquids that make ordinary water “extraordinary.” Call me a suspicious curmudgeon but I don’t trust that stuff. What is it anyway? I’m not paranoid, I’m sure it’s harmless. But then again I’m not a chemist or a toxicologist so I really have no idea and so I’ll stay away.
Lemons and limes are good additives as they’re real things I know about and provide tremendous flavor with minimal calories. But that’s if you like lemon or lime water, which I don’t. Eventually what I discovered made the biggest difference was temperature. Room temperature water was easier to drink so I was able to drink more of it. I don’t need to savor my water, I just need to drink it and move on. One of the larger barriers to weight loss in this country is that food and drink have been elevated to a pedestal well above where they used to be: a necessity to keep you alive. Every cook book and cooking show puts “comfort food” front and center. Emotion and food have been inexorably linked and it’s up to the dieter to unlink them for a while.
From a food media marketing standpoint “comfort food” is a fantastic term because it’s so broad yet easily identifiable. Everyone knows what comfort food is but everyone’s comfort food is different. For me it’s ravioli from Borgatti’s on 187th street with my mother’s gravy (tomato sauce) and my own French onion soup. For you it could be literally anything. It’s also seasonal or holiday/event related. My father-in-law’s Super Bowl comfort food is creamed herring.
This expression has done wonders for Food Network and Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel and all of their personalities and shareholders. It does less for my waistline and so I’ve had to learn where to cut the cord. I don’t need my water to be pure and ice cold. I keep my Brita filter out of the fridge and when filling up my Camelback from one of those office water coolers that chill the stuff down to 33 degrees I go ¾ cold, ¼ boiling and land at a place where I don’t get an ice cream headache.
The entirely unavoidable downside is that you’ll have to pee a lot, especially in the first few days. The upside of peeing a lot, though, is that you flush your system of various chemicals it might not need (as well as those you do, so drinking more than 80 fluid ounces of water a day probably isn’t a good idea). What you definitely purge through this process is salt, but more on that later…
I weigh too much. How much too much isn’t important right now, suffice to say that it’s a lot. An appropriate BMI for someone of my six-foot height is 18.5 to 24.9. I am well above this. It’s entirely my own doing. I don’t have a history of obesity in my family. I don’t have a glandular issue. I’m not any weight producing medication, or any medication at all for that matter. I simply weigh too much. I eat too much and I eat the wrong things. I don’t exercise.
And I’ve decided that I have to change that by way of a New Year’s resolution. In the past I’ve shunned the idea of a resolution, mostly out of a lack of confidence in my ability to keep it. This is, of course, ridiculous and foolish. Maybe the word “resolution” is just too intimidating. What you’re really doing is making a decision. I make decisions every day. Some big, some small. I rarely make resolutions, which is what makes the idea of making one at the start of the calendar year seem so daunting. So I will make several New Year’s Decisions instead.
Foods I will not consume for at least the whole of 2015 if not longer:
- Fast food
- Chinese food
- Ranch dressing
- Fried chicken
- Alouette spreadable cheese
- Junk food in general
Foods that I will not consume for the whole of 2015 unless I make them from scratch and even then only once every 30 days:
- French fries
- Ice cream
Foods that I will consume only once per week:
- White starch (potatoes, white rice, etc.)
- Red meat
Foods that I will consume only once every 90 days:
- French onion soup
Foods that I will endeavor to eat MORE of:
- Dark greens (spinach, kale, etc.)
- Oily fish
Noticed a lot of asterisks there, did you? As for cupcakes and cake I’m permitting myself a cupcake on or around my wedding anniversary (my wedding cake was actually a cupcake, as tradition we go to the place that made them and get a couple) and I’ll allow myself one piece of birthday cake on my birthday.
The pasta gets an asterisk because I’m often invited to people’s homes where pasta is served as the meal, and I’m not going to be a jerk and eat nothing, so I’ll allow myself a single serving of it on such occasions. The bread gets one because my workweek lunches often consist of a sandwich and while I’m planning on varying my work lunches, the occasional sandwich might still be there. The bread I’m talking about avoiding unless I’ve made it is bakery bread, which I can eat with wild abandon.
And then there’s the booze. I’m not going to give up drinking. I like it too much. What I am willing to do is limit myself to one drink per week, but I’ll make it a big one. And once a month I can let loose a little but alcohol is the definition of high calorie/zero nutrition.
So that’s the plan. I’ll endeavor to keep you, Dear Reader, abreast of my progress without this blog dissolving into another unreadable self-help mechanism. And I’ll do my best to through a “healthy” recipe up from time to time.
Happy New Year!
Recipe: The Best French Onion Soup Ever
- 10 pounds of yellow or Spanish onions (no, that’s not a type-o)
- 1 fistful of thyme
- ½ pound of butter (also not a type-o)
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 ½ quarts of College Inn low sodium, 99% fat free beef broth (yes, the brand is important)
- 2 cups of red wine (a Côtes du Rhône is preferable but any dry red wine will suffice)
- 5 heaping tablespoons of all-purpose flour
- 1 good, day-old French baguette
- A tremendous amount of Gruyere cheese
- Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large cast iron or enamel pots in the 5 quart range (stainless steel will do but you should have at least one cast iron dutch oven)
- 1 four-quart sauce pan
- 1 standing cheese grater
- 1 chef knife, if you’re feeling up to chopping all then pounds of those onions yourself
- 1 Cuisinart 11-cup food processor, if you were lucky to get the Cyber Monday deal that we got
- 1 wooden spoon
- 1 slotted spoon for skimming
- 1—4 Le Creuset French onion soup bowls depending on how many friends you have.
- Start by slicing up all the onions or putting them through the 4mm slicing blade on your food processor (I can’t recommend the latter highly enough).
- Melt a stick of butter into each of each of the two cast iron pots over medium heat.
- Once the butter is melted divide the 10 pounds of onions between the two pots and generously salt. Mix to coat with the butter and then cover the pots for about 5 minutes.
- After five minutes, when the onions have had time to soften, add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaves split among each pot. Stir to combine. (Tie up the thyme with butchers twine very tightly to avoid having to fish out the twigs or pick them out of your teeth later on.)
- Cook the onions for about 60—75 minutes or until they have deeply caramelized, their volume should reduce by about 75%. (You may want to place a second burner underneath each pot to avoid burning to the bottom or reduce the heat as you go.)
- While the onions are reducing, heat the beef broth in the sauce pan till it boils, then kill the heat.
- After the onions have fully reduced and caramelized add a cup of wine to each pot, increase heat to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low/low and let it simmer until the onion/wine mixture has had time to reduce, approximately 15 minutes.
- Once the winey onions have reduced combine the two batches into a single cast iron pot, remove the thyme and bay leaves, and add the flour. Cook for 10—12 minutes to cook out the raw flour taste.
- Add the beef broth and stir to combine.
At this the point the recipe is essentially finished. You could, if you wanted to, cook the soup for ten minutes and serve. Or…
- Make sure the pot is on a double burner and set the heat at medium low and cook, skimming off the fat and stirring occasionally for 1—5 hours, adding beef broth in case the liquid reduces too much.
- Meanwhile, shortly before serving, cut the bread into 1”x1” croutons and toast in the over at 250 degrees for 15 minutes.
- Place the croutons into the French onion soup bowls and ladle the soup on top. Top with a heap of shredded Gruyere and place under a broiler set to high for 3—5 minutes.
- Serve immediately. (Makes 6—8 servings.)