Thursday, October 30, 2008

the horror

I have no plans to dress up or ask for candy, but tomorrow night is Halloween, and like the good weekend pagan I secretly long to be - not sure if it's Norse, Anglo-Saxon or Continental Germanic, though - it would be odd to let the festival of Samhain come and go without at least some acknowledgment. So why not watch a horror film? (Well, because I have both a paper and an exam due on Monday, but I digress).

Truth be known, I'm not beholden to the horror genre, for the simple reason that I don't dig gore. Today's crop of torture porn offerings don't interest me in the slightest, and the slew of 80s knockoffs featuring an endless stream of Jasons and Michaels and Freddies serve mainly as poor camp. I'd rather consider a few films that aren't ordinarily considered to be bona fide horror films, yet for me capture the sense of unease, mystery and surrealism thaat make up the best horror.

1) The Night of The Hunter, Charles Laughton (1955). Laughton's sole stab at directing was not a success, either financially or critically. Today, it's considered among the finest in American cinema of the 1950s. This is Southern Gothic at its most dreamlike and poetic - Flannery O'Connor on the silver screen, with Catholicism dropped for fire-and-brimstone preaching. Robert Mitchum's turn as the Rev. Henry Powell introduces a grand rogue to the movies, while the great silent film star Lillian Gish adds both a haunting presence and a stubborn nobility to a twisted story of murder and chase.

2) Spider, David Cronenberg (2002). I could have picked any of this Canadian master's horror offerings, from his early splatterfests (The Brood, Scanners) to his later works of psychological terror (Dead Ringers). But Spider lays off the gore and travels inside the mind for a deeply disorienting journey into the realms of memory and schizophrenia. There's a kind of O. Henry twist at the film's conclusion, but this is not merely a gimmick film along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan. It's deeply moving and deeply disturbing. And it boasts a wonderful performance by Ralph Fiennes.

3) The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman (1960). There was often more than a touch of Old Norse unease to Bergman's works, but while The Seventh Seal may have the most iconic imagery, it's this work which best illustrates the deeply pagan roots of Scandinavia. The detached nature of the film resembles those old American Child ballads that calmly detail acts of horror against plaintive melodies. This was later updated by Wes Craven in the 1970s as the extremely gory Last House on the Left. This is the one to track down.

4) Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, F.W. Murnau (1922). No big surprise here. F.W. Murnau's silent masterpiece is one of the finest of early films and an early high point for horror. Those unversed in the world of silent film might not appreciate every moment of this work, but there are enough classic images and sequences to unnerve any viewer. The scene in which the vampire rises up from his coffin to directly face the viewer is one of the great moments of the silent era. Kino's new transfer is one of the better available versions - be warned that silent cinema is still rather poorly represented on DVD.

5) The Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964). Japanese horror is a whole world onto itself, and while much of it helped prefigure the current trend towards extreme violence (Ringu = The Ring), the moody 1960s trilogy offered by Teshigahara and novelist Kobo Abe are quite different. This existentialist piece offers stunning visuals and a haunting story, one in which beauty can often be found amid deep unease. The images of skittering sand grains and the wind's ever-present howl will stay in your mind long after the credits roll.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Giving "The Ex" The Ax

It doesn't rank very high on my list of developing stories, but I feel I should at least make a passing reference to the welcome demise of the new CBS comedy-drama The Ex List, until recently showing at 9 PM EST on Fridays. The program starred the theoretically pretty actress Elizabeth Reaser (best known, certain sources tell me, for a role in Grey's Anatomy) as Bella Bloom, a woman told by an ethnically vague fortune teller (Brazilian, perhaps?) that she had already met and dated her life mate, and needs to find them again or she will die alone. The series promised to follow Bella on this existential quest over the course of an entire season, as she tracked down all previous lovers and boyfriends in order to determine whether he was The One (italics decidedly mine).

The only reason I even remotely care about or have even heard of such dreck is that The Ex List was being filmed entirely in our little community of Ocean Beach. This means that streets have been shut down, store fronts commandeered, and beaches monopolized. One very brief scene involving the quasi-lovely Bella and her father was filmed directly across the street from our house one morning, a process which involved shutting down the entire block the previous evening and filling the area with moving trucks and horse trailers loaded down with equipment. It was amusing to watch the intense effort needed to deliver a 35-second scene that might or might not even make the final cut. In these times of economic shrinkage and endless war, it was also revolting.

Jane and I watched a few episodes with friends out of simple curiosity, and concluded the entire program was an hour-long train wreck (yeah, that's right - CBS blocked off an entire hour for this schlock). The brief thrill of seeing a familiar beachfront or favorite bar was overwhelmed by the excruciating banality of the plot and the fumblingly oafish attempts at humor (Sample witticism- Bella: He's changed. Vivian: Yeah, he's changed into somebody who doesn't like you). When even an attempt to insert a joke about a merkin fails, you know you're sinking fast. Our friend Sage watched the initial episode with us, and after one particularly brutal exchange loudly exclaimed, "Oh, this show is just butchering our town!" During a neighborhood block party last week, I somewhat drunkenly told our next door neighbor (the one whose home was used as a backdrop) that I thought the show was "utter swill".

So I'm delighted to announce that this program has been dropped from the CBS lineup after a paltry 4 episodes due to extreme viewer disinterest (for those who understand or care about such things, the series premiere brought in 6.85 million, which is considered very low). I guess I couldn't help but take some interest in this program as it was being filmed both figuratively and literally in my backyard (or front yard). Still, I rejoice the passing.

Click here for info on the demise. Look above for a totally-uncalled-for photo comparison between lead actress Elizabeth Reaser and ER's Noah Wyle (a similarity Jane first pointed out to me and has continued to insist upon ever since).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Food From the Borderlands

When Jane's monthly book group meetings roll around, she often looks to me for kitchen inspiration. One of the central features of this San Diego-based group is that participants bring along dishes representing the culture of the book under discussion. In the past, they've offered Indian food, Mexican dishes and meals from the Deep South. When they read a book about military life, Jane dug up some (very) old MRE's from a Navy pal's bunker. I often see these book meetings as an opportunity to flex my gourmet muscle.

The book this month (nominated by Jane herself) was Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 Everything is Illuminated. An exploration of the aftereffects of the Holocaust, a treatise on American ancestor-worship and a partially ironic update of the myth of the Wandering Jew, the book takes place mainly in the formerly Soviet republic of Ukraine (not The Ukraine, please). Luckily, I own a well-thumbed-through copy of Culinaria's Russia cookbook, which features an extensive section on Ukrainian dishes (major sidenote: the formerly out-of-print Culinaria series, quite possibly the best books on food and cuisine I've ever come across, are being re-printed in affordable softcover this fall. Check out Amazon for more details). So, while Jane waltzed off to choir rehearsal, I set about concocting everyone's favorite Ukranian dish, Buryakovy salat z kvsoleyu i yablokamy, or beet salad with apple and beans.

3 medium sized beets
2 medium sized apples
1 cup white beans, cooked
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar
salt and pepper
salad leaves for serving

Boil the beets for 1 hour and peel. Chop the beets and apples into small dice.
Combine with the cooked white beans, oil, and white wine vinegar.
Season, and arrange on the salad leaves.

The only snag with a recipe like this is peeling and dicing the beets. The cutting board and surrounding paper towel wads looked like toss-asides from a surgical room. I even deigned to tie an apron to myself, a rare event in this house. But the skins slipped off the beets perfectly as I held them under cool running water, and they sliced apart with ease. I made enough for Jane to fill an entire serving platter while leaving a healthy amount for myself, which I enjoyed solo at our kitchen table. The warm earthy beets stained the beans and played off the tart crispness of the apples, and the rare bite of black pepper added an additional element to the wonderful interplay of flavor. It was both familiar and faintly exotic - exactly the way you'd hope Ukranian cuisine would be.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hitting the Road

Hard to move a friend off the couch and down the road, but harder still to make excuses after the seven-day deadline has passed and once-solid plans for heading north have turned into hunkering down in southern beach regions for the forseeable future. So you load up the laundry machine, offer use of a broom to clean out a firewood-strewn truck bed, and watch the clock for your spouse's return home.

One can be torn between offering a month-long couch squat to your oldest friend and recognizing that some people need to be shown the door when they can't seem to locate it by themselves. One can sympathize with an endless need to roam and wander while also grilling them on what exactly so frightens them about commitments and responsibilities. One can stand on the sidewalk with arms crossed as the ocean fog drifts into the neighborhood, watching as an air mattress becomes a bed, wondering if you'll see this very vehicle parked somewhere down the street in the coming days - wondering how that might make you feel.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Endless Summer

Tony and I took a drive along the Southern California coast yesterday, both for the simple pleasures of a road trip and also to scout out possible locations for him to coast under the radar, operating out of the back of his vehicle while learning the rudimentaries of surfing.

We determined that the extreme southern reaches of San Diego and the woolier parts of Orange County might be best for this sort of thing, while the moneyed zipcodes of Carlsbad and Laguna Beach might not work out quite so well.

We had bright sunshine and glittering seas the entire trip along the sands. We also saw plenty of sprawl and commerce.
He was largely appalled by these excesses - I argued that it might be sprawl, but at least we invented this stuff.

Friday, October 24, 2008


New recipe, courtesy of the good folks over at Epicurious, who've been helping me for several years now learn how to pronounce, say, paillard (PI-yahrd, meaning a veal scallop or thin slice of beef quickly sauteed or grilled) or find excellent recipes when I only have a few ingredients at hand and no idea how to make them interesting. So when I unpacked our farmer's CSA box yesterday afternoon and stared at the fresh produce, waiting for an inspiration to hit, I eventually decided to type in some terms and hope for a hit. Zucchini and some garbanzo beans were to be the two key players.

After some moderately amusing skips across the website, I finally hit upon a recipe that caught my eye - Black-Eyed Pea and Pumpkin Salad. Trouble was, I had zucchini at hand, not pumpkin. And certainly no black-eyed peas. The recipe also called for a plum tomato (none in the house), lime juice (nope), a red onion (uh-uh) and a green bell pepper (sorry). I also needed to bake the non-existent pumpkin in the oven at a temperature much higher than what Jane had already set for her bread. I seemed to be out of luck.

And yet.
-Zucchini and pumpkin are both gourds, so why not substitute one for the other?
-Instead of baking in the oven, why not slice and dice the zucchini extra thin, and saute them over the stove top in olive oil with some chopped garlic?
-Garbanzo beans taste just as good as black-eyed peas.
-We might not have any limes in the house, but we do have a lemon tree growing in the backyard, and while the flavor profile of limes and lemons may differ, both would equally offer a nice zesty citrus kick.
-A few chunks of diced canned tomatoes certainly never hurt anybody.
-Red onion, white onion, whatever.
-Screw the green bell pepper.


Gently saute diced zucchini with some olive oil and minced garlic. Leave to cool in the refrigerator.

Whisk olive oil and lemon juice together. Season with salt and pepper.

Finely dice a small white onion and a cucumber. Add a few spoonfuls of diced canned tomatoes, along with their juices. Chop up a handful of fresh basil leaves. Combine ingredients, stirring in drained garbanzo beans. Season.

Stir in cooled zucchini. Toss and season.

It may not have had much resemblance to the original online recipe, but it had the fresh crisp taste one would hope for in any salad at the end of a long hot October day (this is San Diego, October can be hot). With freshly-baked bread and a nice bottle of wine from Walla Walla (Sapolil Cellars, check them out), it was a fine meal. Thanks CSA box. Thanks Epicurious. Thanks improvisation.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Watching People Watching

Last Christmas, while visiting my family back in the Fox Valley of Wisconsin, I attempted a short-lived and annoying (for the participants) experiment. I filmed their reactions to a Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears football game, standing with my back towards the television screen and filming their faces as the match progressed. It was a bad day for the Packers. I've watched the results several times, and continue to be amazed at how odd the sensation is of watching people watch something else. My mother's animated histrionics and my grandfather's disgusted knee-slaps make up a huge part of the entertainment factor. But even my father's relatively calm responses - merely muttering "face mask" as he reaches for another slice of pizza - is somewhat interesting when viewed over the screen. As somebody who has never fallen for the game of football, it's perhaps not surprising that I would find my family's reactions to the game more interesting than the game itself. But I think it also says something about the art of watching - not quite voyeurism, but still something slightly transgressive.

I was reminded of this last night when a friend and I watched Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi's moody ghost story masterpiece from 1953. It was a second viewing for me, a first for my friend. But more importantly, it was also a first for my friend in experiencing any sort of older Japanese cinema. And throughout the movie, I caught myself wondering what it must be like to see something like an older film from a foreign culture for the first time. I remember how I responded to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo in college - the rhythms of the Japanese language were so incredibly odd to me that I could barely keep up, while the exaggerated delivery styles and kabuki-derived acting also struck me as patently weird. Slowly, these once-odd attributes normalized, becoming almost familiar as my Japanese cinema credentials stacked up. And so while I could watch Ugetsu and reflect on the universality of the characters or marvel at the majestic slow pans across the landscape, was my friend struggling to understand the exotic textures of the traditional music which opens the film?

I've always been amazed at how perceptions of an object shift over time and between people, even as the object itself remains unchanged. Without any larger cultural understanding to latch onto, I'm not sure how much of an impression Ugetsu made upon my friend. I'm glad he was open to experiencing something new and potentially disorienting. The fact that we both took something very different away from the film is what keeps me enthralled with the artistic process.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Glimpse From Home

Still trying to set up shop over here. For starters, ooh and ahh over a photo from last year - the evening sky over the Pacific and the silhouette of the ever-present palm tree.

Let's Try This On For Size

After far too many months of excuses, plenty of hemming and hawing, and watching from the sidelines as a writing-based trend exploded beyond the mainstream, I've decided to cautiously enter the blogosphere, if for no other reason than to please my wife and to track my thoughts. No promises on how far and long this project will go, and no promises on whether or not the content will be interesting to anybody save myself. This is just an attempt to see if my lifelong inability to start and maintain a diary or journal has anything to do with hand cramps, or if there's a much deeper issue at play (something about commitment or flagging energies). I'm interested in many things, and I hope this blog can adequately reflect my concerns. I'll probably write a lot about food and movies, however, and complain quite a bit about plenty of things I can't do anything about. Like today - I'm tempted to make my first post a long comment on what my friend Tony has been telling me about the boosterism he's been confronted with while hanging around in Denver, and what I think is wrong or at least troubling about city boosterism. But who wants to kick off an online diary project with something like that?

More later (on Denver boosterism, I guess, and plenty of other more pressing matters). For now, it's good just to see a basic template up and running. Here goes (literally) nothing.