30 July 2010

Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 3’

Death be not plastic: The anxiety begins.

In life, the process of maturation, a theme that runs through most Pixar movies, leads inexorably to death, a phenomenon that’s concerned some of these films, too, most notably Finding Nemo, in which the hero’s mother and all his siblings are killed in the first five minutes of the picture. Yet somehow, despite the Toy Story movies’ frequent suggestions that the toys’ owner, young Andy, would some day grow up, and throughout the narrow escapes that Woody and his friends enacted, I hadn’t really contemplated the mortality of these particular characters. They seemed more concerned with friendship — and love — than with death; the worst fate they ever risked, it seemed, was getting sent to a museum, where no child like Andy would play with them anymore.*

But even in a successful movie franchise, toys aren’t merely outgrown. They get worn and thrown out with the trash, or forgotten and left behind. They break and are destroyed. Just like people. And the toys in Toy Story have always been more real than any of the humans around them. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that, in this final installment of the trilogy, the question of mortality would loom large and very real, beginning in the opening scenes.

Just as Finding Nemo discouraged a generation of kids from flushing unwanted fish down the toilet, so Toy Story 3 may launch a boom in donations of used toys to needy children.

In that wonderful sequence, we see what Andy imagines as he plays, including a trainload of orphans speeding over a cliff, and a dazzling “death by monkeys.” Flash-forward to the next scene, eleven years later, when college-bound Andy has parted with most of his old toys: the gang is reduced to a handful of survivors, and the Potato Heads espe­cial­ly are worse for the wear.

Death hovers over the rest of the movie (which we are conscious is the last in the series), and the threat culminates in a stunning climax in a junkyard. The minute the gang arrives, three characters are run over by a truck — bam, they’re gone. The rest manage another series of spec­tacular escapes, until they realize that this time, there’s no way out.

Playtime is over.

The folks who make Pixar movies typically earn the emotional points they score; that, as much as the technical assurance and wit they bring to each project, is what sets them apart from the vast majority of popular entertainments today. So when Woody and his friends confront death, the moment is profound and powerful. The courage shown by the characters is matched (at least) by that of the filmmakers, who prolong the scene past the point of suspense, until a strangely peaceful accept­ance falls over us all. You find yourself thinking, “I hope I go like that: with dignity and a last gesture of affection, a sense that I have not been alone.”

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but in thinking about that scene, I remember the death of Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I wasn’t a hardcore Spock fan (McCoy was my hero), but the scene tapped into a deep well of feeling, the accumulation of years of following these characters, being entertained and sometimes enlightened by them, playing with their toys and dreaming up new adventures for them. And suddenly the Enterprise looked more like real life than fantasy: with Spock’s death, we understood that the “five-year mission” was really a part of our personal journey, too.

You’ve got a friend in me.

The original Star Trek TV series had been off the air for 13 years when that movie was made; Toy Story 3 arrived in theaters 15 years after the first Toy Story had its premiere. Its first audiences were even younger than I was when I discovered Star Trek; they have grown up with Woody and Buzz, and they are at least as invested in their fates as I was in Kirk and Spock’s. I expect that that scene in the junkyard in Toy Story 3 is going to speak to at least a couple of generations of movie­goers with the same kind of force. As was the case with its predeces­sors, Toy Story 3 signals from the outset that it’s a classic.

First-graders may not know a pasodoble from Play-Doh,
but “Buzz Español” is funny, no matter how old you are.

Another way that the Toy Story movies have differed from most other recent “family films” is that, when playing to the grownups in the audience, they don’t wink (much) or talk over the children’s heads (often). The movies aren’t snarky: they’re witty. The jokes are solidly constructed, grounded in character and emotionally honest. Even the material targeted to children feels real and (usually) important. It’s no accident that most of the Toy Story characters sport retro designs: adults remember playing with toys that looked like these. If you’re the right age, when you first saw Buzz Lightyear, you thought of a sort of deluxe Major Matt Mason** — a toy that hasn’t been made since the 1970s, long before today’s kids were born. Thus our nostalgic emotions have been engaged from the start; the excellence of the writing and the filmmaking do the rest.

This is perhaps an overlong justification for the tears that filled my eyes a couple of times in the course of watching Toy Story 3, another popular entertainment that aspires to a higher kind of art. I celebrate its creators’ achievement, and I urge you to see the movie. (That is, if you haven’t seen it already.)

Prelude to a holocaust: Arriving at the prison camp.

*NOTE: The other dire fate faced by our heroes would be a trip next-door, where a child like Sid would play with them. Reportedly, Sid makes a return appearance as a garbage man in Toy Story 3, but I honestly didn’t recognize him. Another excuse to see the picture again!

**According to that irrefutable source, Wikipedia, Tom Hanks is a Matt Mason fan since his own boyhood, who hopes to make a movie about the character.

Read more!

28 July 2010

The Performance That Changed My Life

Spend time in theaters and concert halls, and you start to keep a list, close to the heart, of great evenings or mere moments when an artist transformed the world for you. You count yourself lucky to be alive, at the right time and the right place, to enjoy such an experience. My list starts with the night I saw Beverly Sills in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth (which is why I talk about it all the time), but the list keeps growing, to the present day and, I hope, beyond.

We collect these performances. Some people call this a scrapbook, but I call it my autobiography, written in the voices of others.

Recently, though, it’s become clear to me that the performance that changed my life most, is one that I didn’t actually witness.

When my mother was young, she made a trip to New York City, where she saw Mary Martin in Peter Pan. That performance didn’t inspire Mom to go on the stage, or anything else so obvious as that, but it changed her perspectives forever.

Having grown up in a small town, she hadn’t seen many plays, let alone full-scale Broadway musicals. She’d seen her share of movies, I guess, but before that trip to New York, she had little experience of being in the same room with the people who were singing and dancing and making her laugh or cry.

In short, she had little preparation and less warning for the phenome­non that was Mary Martin. Years later, Mom remembers, “She just sat down on that stage and sang to me.”

You may feel the same way, as you watch this.

It’s a matter of recorded fact that Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was magical.* She made us believe in magic, in eternal youth, in flying. And even in fairies: I doubt that anyone ever was born who didn’t clap for Tinkerbell when Mary Martin asked it. She was irresistible. To see her today in “Neverland” is to conjure a special nostalgia, not only for our memories of her, and of who we were when we first saw her or first heard this song — but also for a time when belief was easier.

Older now, we know that “thinking lovely thoughts” can keep us young, though it can’t entirely prevent our growing up. My mother might have arrived at this conclusion independently, without help from Mary Martin, but surely corroboration from another cock-eyed optimist from Texas encouraged my mother’s pursuit of happiness.

I oughta put up a statue … but somebody else already did.
The Mary Martin statue in her hometown, Weatherford, TX

How did Mary Martin’s performance affect me? Well, each time I have prepared to fly off on some theatrical adventure, I have seen Mary Martin in my mother’s eyes and heard both women in a single voice. I have, for example, announced that I was not going to look for another paying job just now, but instead I was going to sign up for a non-paying job on a Broadway musical. I have declared that I was going to drop out of graduate school on a mere promise of getting to stage an opera. I have stated my intention to travel halfway ’round the world, just to hear somebody sing — and when I was younger, that meant asking my mother to drive me there.

Each time I make such a pronouncement, my mother draws back, just a little teeny bit. I can see the wheels turning as she runs through all the practical reasons I really should not follow through on my hare-brained schemes. Work on a Broadway show? Why not just run away and join the circus?

But quickly then she is transformed. Her resistance falters; she melts a little, perhaps. What might have been a lecture, or even an argument, is not merely choked back or sighed away, it evaporates. And Mom ends up saying, “How wonderful!”

She is thinking of Peter Pan, and the magic that she felt in Mary Martin’s performance, all those years ago. Then suddenly, my ambition makes sense to her: He wants to be a part of that, too.

Though I saw this process many times, it took me years to understand it. At last I asked Mom: “You’re thinking of Mary Martin, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, “I am.”

So here’s to Mary Martin, and the performance that changed my life. And so long as I’m lifting my glass in a toast —

Happy birthday, Mom.

*NOTE: That Martin’s performance was not only magical but also perhaps the most dangerous in history, we know because the television network had to pull the program off the air: Martin persuaded far too many little children that they, too, could fly, and they were jumping out of windows and off of rooftops across the country. When NBC remade the program in color, the same thing happened, all over again.

Read more!

25 July 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 21

No photographs exist of the plum preserves I have made.
The black-currant preserves here are the result
of an absurd amount of labor on my part —
because I didn’t follow Tante Victoire’s lesson.



Plum preserves.

We were very busy all week not only because of our upcoming departure, which obliged us to make all the winter preparations for the house in the country, but also because we made preserves.*

Tante Victoire’s fruit garden isn’t very big: one cherry tree, a few red-currant bushes, a plot of strawberries, that’s not much. But what beautiful plum trees! There are three trees of mirabelle plums, two of Reine-Claude, four of Sainte-Catherine. And precisely this year, the fruit was abundant, such that the plum trees produced enough to make great quantities of preserves.

We began by taking down from the pot-rack the pans and other utensils needed for cooking fruit. Even though they were clean, we rinsed them in fresh water and wiped them with care.

I couldn’t explain for myself why utensils made of copper are used to make preserves, and I asked Tante Victoire the reason for it.

“Tante Victoire, couldn’t we cook the fruit in this pan made of wrought iron? It’s big, very clean, and it seems to me that it would be perfectly adequate.”

“No,” Tante Victoire answered me. “We have noticed that galvanized utensils change the color of preserves, and these ones that we’re making today, in cooking, would damage the wrought iron. This is without doubt because of the acidity of the fruit juices. Let us take instead this beautiful pan made of red copper, this other one made of yellow copper, these two copper skimmers; you’ll see that our preserves will be beautiful and that our utensils will not deteriorate or blacken at all when we use them.”

Our plums were gathered two days ago. In the evenings, our time was spent in removing the pits. Everything was ready on that score. We weighed the fruits and the sugar that we would use. For these preserves, it’s necessary to measure, as cooks say, pound for pound, that is to say the same weight of sugar and of fruit. On one scale, we placed the fruit, on the other the sugar, and we balanced them. You must realize that we started this operation several times over, since we had such a wealth of fruit that we couldn’t place the entire harvest on the scale.

In short, our twenty pounds of sugar were measured, and we had just enough.

We had begun by making the syrup. Tante Victoire had explained to me that syrup is sugar cooked in a very small quantity of water.

The sugar was placed in a pan with a half-liter of water for each kilogram of sugar, and we let it cook while I washed and I prepared the pots of glass and porcelain destined to receive the preserves.

Tante Victoire kept watch on the syrup as it cooked. I say her plunging the skimmer into the pan from time to time, pulling it out and blowing across it.

“Is it to cool off the skimmer that you blow upon it this way, Tante Victoire?”

You know how to skim, don’t you?
Just put your lips together, and blow.

Tante Victoire began to laugh. “What an idea! …Not at all, my little one: it is so that I may see if the syrup is cooked enough to begin adding the mirabelles. It is necessary that, in blowing hard on the skimmer, one makes the syrup pass through the holes and that there remain sticking to the skimmer’s surface some small balls. That’s what we call syrup that beads up.”**

And, in saying this, Tante Victoire continued her experiment.

Soon, indeed, the sugar passed through the holes of the skimmer, forming little balls. It was just right.

Then Tante Victoire threw the fruits into the pan, leaving them there just until they began to boil, then removing them, always using the skimmer, and placing them gently in the pots. She left the syrup on the fire, where it reduced. Then she poured it over the plums, right to the brim of each pot.

“You see,” she said to me, “I haven’t completely filled the pots with the plums, because it’s necessary for the syrup to cover the preserves completely. It is always the same rule for preserving fruits or vegetables: things to be preserved must be sheltered from contact with the air. Here, it is the syrup that preserves the fruits, as the butter preserved our sorrel, as the lard preserved our goose.”

“Truly,” said I, “it’s not at all difficult to make preserves, and I believe that now I shall know how to do it all by myself.”

“Nothing in cooking is difficult,” said Tante Victoire; “with attention and care one almost always succeeds, but here it is above all a question of habit, and it’s possible that your first attempts, if you were alone, would not turn out happily. What’s more,” she added, “we shall soon see. I am making a gift to you of six pots of plum preserves, on two conditions: the first is that you yourself shall prepare them; the second is that you will promise me to return the pots to me when the jam is finished, since, like every housekeeper, I hold to my reserve of pots and utensils even more than to my fruits.”

I promised Tante Victoire everything that she wished, and I was quite content. I myself prepared my six pots of preserves. I must admit that the syrup was not perhaps quite done when I poured it over the fruit. I realize also that I had perhaps left the plums a few instants too long in the pan and that they crushed a bit, like a marmalade, but the preserves were good, despite these slight flaws, and I declared myself satisfied.

Tante Victoire remarked to me that I was content with too little, and that to become a good cook, I must be tougher on myself: “It is,” she said, “by this system that one winds up neglecting things and spoiling much. Be very severe with yourself in every little job in the kitchen and in the household. It’s the only way to attain perfection. Without it, from one small oversight to another, one winds up doing things by half-measure. In domestic life as in everything that concerns existence, distrust half-measures.

Thus speaks with great wisdom my good Tante Victoire. I shall remem­ber always, I hope, her excellent lessons.


[To copy and to keep]

1. Whenever I wish to make dishes with dairy (pudding, rice pudding, etc.), I shall take care to use the best milk, otherwise I should risk making the task wothless, bad milk making only detestable dishes.

2. If I must use eggs, I shall always choose very fresh ones.

3. I shall recall that sugary dishes are always fairly expensive and that I must consequently work hard to make them correctly, so that they take the place of a --- instead of being a mere dessert.

4. If the fruit is abundant and inexpensive, I shall make preserves, useful for dessert dishes in winter and for children’s tea-time.

5. To make preserves, I shall use utensils made entirely of copper, and not tin-plated utensils that spoil the color of the fruit.

6. I shall remember that in order to succeed in cooking, as in every thing, one must not be content with little, but must be tough and severe with oneself.

Next time: Coffee, tea, or chocolate?


Sugary dishes.

159. Pudding. — To make ordinary pudding, mix in a salad bowl six egg yolks, for example, with six spoonfuls of powdered sugar. Have already one liter of milk already boiled. When the sugar is melted, pour the milk bit by bit over the eggs, taking care to stir constantly with a wooden spoon. This being done, pour this mixture into a saucepan and place over a very low flame, while stirring gently and in the same direction, with the wooden spoon. When the mixture feels as if it is thickening, it is cooked. Pour into a compote dish or a bowl and eat it warm or cold.

160. How to vary puddings. — Vary puddings by adding to the milk substances that will flavor it different, vanilla or lemon, for example.
To make chocolate pudding, use milk to which chocolate has been melted, and to make coffee pudding, use milk to which coffee has been added.

161. Flan or upside-down pudding. — Prepare the eggs and the milk as you would for an ordinary pudding flavored with vanilla, but add to the yolk at least half of the egg whites. When the mixture is done, pour it into a deep dish and let it “take,” whether in the oven, whether into a bain-marie.
When one wishes that the pudding be upside-down, that is to say that it can be detached from the saucepan or the mold where it has cooked, smear the lining of this saucepan or this dish with some “caramel,” and cook it in a bain-marie.
The flan is cooked when a straw will stand up in it.
To unmold a pudding, briskly turn the mold over a plate and tap it lightly on the exterior edges and the base of the mold.

162. Gâteau de riz. — For one liter of milk, use a half-pound of rice, 30 grams of fine butter, some sugar, and a piece of vanilla. Let the rice absorb the milk until thick and flavored with the vanilla.
When it is cooked, remove the saucepan from the fire, let cool, and take three egg yolks that are mixed with the rice by stirring briskly with a wooden spoon. Then beat the egg whites until thick and add them to the mixture. Pour all of it into a mold smeared with “caramel” and place the mold either in the bain-marie or in a warm oven, that is to say only slightly hot. When serving, turn the gâteau over a deep dish or a compote-dish. It’s often served surrounded by a vanilla cream.

163. Rice pudding. — This is quite simply rice that has absorbed and been cooked in sugared milk and flavored. Leave it on the fire for about an hour. Serve it in a deep dish and eat it with a spoon.

164. Apple fritters. — To make fritters, it’s necessary first to prepare the batter. For this, place in a dish three spoons of flour, a spoonful of eau de vie, a spoonful of olive oil, a spoonful of powdered sugar, and a pinch of salt. Mix all of this and slowly pour over it a glass of lukewarm water which is incorporated while avoiding the creation of lumps. Then, beat some egg whites until thick and add them to the mixture.
To make the fritters, peel and cut into round slices some good, quite healthy apples. Soak each slice in the batter and drop it into boiling frying-oil.
When both sides are golden brown, remove the fritters one by one from the frying-oil, drain them and serve them as hot as possible.

165. Fruit marmalades.*** — Fruit marmalades are all made in the same manner. Peel the fruits, cut them into pieces, cook them over a low flame in a saucepan with a bit of water, a great deal of sugar and some kind of flavoring: vanilla or cinammon, or lemon zest. The marmalade is done when the fruit is completely crushed and the mixture has the consistency of a thick porridge.
Sometimes one cooks fruits that are whole or cut into large pieces. What one gets this way is not a marmalade, but a compote.

Poires au vin: See my note.

166. Compotes. — The fruits that are most often cooked in compotes are: plums, pears, apples. Do as you did to make marmalade, but without cutting up the fruit. Before serving, remove the fruit from the saucepan where they cooked. Stand them on a compote-dish. Leave the juice on the fire, where it will finish cooking by reducing. When it takes on the consistency of syrup, pour it over the fruits.
For pears and prunes, wine is sometimes used instead of water to cook them.

Though the process doesn’t look today as it did in Madeleine’s time,
making marmalade remains a popular activity in France.

* TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Madeleine correctly uses the word “confiture,” which refers to fruit preserves (jam), and is never used to refer to preserved sorrel or goose or any of the other foods that she and Tante Victoire have been preserving in recent chapters. The French language strikes me as slightly richer in vocabulary to describe the various means of preserving foods — but perhaps that’s because I’ve never preserved anything in English.

**Like Tante Victoire’s instructions on rubbing, her instructions on blowing are much less suggestive in the original French.

***Is this a radical change in French cooking? I don’t know. But what our esteemed author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons describes as a “marmalade” is now commonly known in France as a “compote.” In French, just as in English, the word “marmalade” is now used for preserves made of citrus fruits — while a “compote de pommes,” for example, now looks just like applesauce, and not like whole apples stewed and served on a plate.
Among people and restaurants I know, what L. Ch.-Desmaisons de­scribes as a “compote” is almost always made with wine nowadays, and I’m most familiar with “poires au vin,” one of Bernard’s great specialties.

Read more!

Romantic Comedies versus Real Life

My personal view of the ideal romantic relationship was ruined
when I discovered that I’m not Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

According to an item in the New York Daily News this week, “A poll of 1,000 Australians found almost half said [romantic comedies], with their inevitable happy endings, have ruined their view of an ideal relationship. One in four Australians said they were now expected to know what their partner was thinking, while one in five respondents said it made their partners expect gifts and flowers ‘just because.’”

Clearly, romantic comedies present unreasonable expectations of love. Happiness! Gift-giving! Mind-reading! Who is Hollywood trying to kid? And those are only a few of the assumptions made by these movies. Herewith, a list of others, and an invitation to submit more.

Love, a condition occurring between one man and one woman,
is most often seen in white people.
Love does not exist for women who are funny.
Love does not exist for men who are not funny.
Love does not exist for women who are physically unattractive.
Love does not exist for men who do not drink beer.
Love does not exist among the middle and lower classes.
(In fact, the middle and lower classes do not exist.)
A romantic relationship will look like this,
including her color-coordinated sleepwear and wallpaper.
(Otherwise, you’re doing something wrong. Obviously.)
If a man and woman spend all their time bickering, they will eventually have great sex, whereupon it will become clear to them both that they were meant to spend the rest of their lives together.
She wants to be treated with complete indifference,
excepting when she wants to be stalked obsessively.
Attempting to balance these extremes is risky and inadvisable.
She really, really wants to listen to his mix tape.
(Or playlist, depending on how old he is.)
What she wants above all else in life, however, is …

…oh, who am I kidding? Nobody cares!
(We had a good laugh about it, though.)
A woman is defined by what kind of man she is attracted to.
A man is defined by his hobbies.
(Except in movies starring Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Reynolds, or Seth Rogen,
in which case a man is defined by his abdominals: does he have any?)

She is frequently attracted to men two to three times older than she.
She is frequently attracted to men who wear dirty T-shirts and bermuda shorts all day long.
She is attracted to men who make penis and fart jokes in day-to-day conversation, because at least it means he’s talking to her.
(The women in action movies aren’t so lucky.)
She is frequently attracted to slackers in dead-end jobs, or no job at all, especially if this means he’s free to drink beer, make fart jokes, and wear a dirty T-shirt and bermuda shorts all day long.
(Also, it’s convenient for him to have no other commitments on those occasions when she wants to be stalked.)
Her ideal man, however, is an emotional child.

Because a really good romantic relationship is sort of like training for motherhood.
(Here, we see a typical play date.)
True love is impossible without spontaneous, elaborate musical numbers choreographed to vintage pop songs.
Nothing brings couples together better than getting shot at.
It’s the perfect way to start off a relationship,
or to put the zing back into a stale marriage.
“You’re beautiful when you’re dodging bullets!”
”I know! Let’s have great sex!”
(This is assumed to be true in all Hollywood movies, actually.)

Not pictured: The sniper on the opposite rooftop.
More often than they speak to each other,
every man or woman must rely on an outside adviser.
Pick one for each partner:
*a man-hungry girlfriend,
*an inarticulate drinking buddy,
*a sassy gay man,
*a sassy black man or woman,
or a sassy Jack Black,
*a 12-year-old child,
*Betty White.
Needless to say, no adviser is required to know anything at all about long-term heterosexual relationships in the modern world.
The single most important assumption
in romantic comedy:

Men can be changed.

(This is why women find these movies romantic … and why men find them funny.)

Uh-oh! She doesn’t look romantic anymore.
What’s wrong? Don’t ask her
Seek the advice of a 12-year-old child to find out!

(Photos from (500) Days of Summer, a rom-com I actually enjoyed.)

Read more!

24 July 2010

Daniel Schorr

It’s undeniable that much of the work of the journalist Daniel Schorr was exemplary: one doesn’t land on Nixon’s Enemies List for being a lapdog instead of a watchdog. But he is not one of my heroes, and so let us now speak a little ill of the dead. For with Schorr passes one of the great object lessons for other broadcast journalists: within the busi­ness, people were terrified of turning out like him.

It wasn’t merely the perception that Schorr stood up for his principles and lost his job (though few among us want to lose our jobs for any reason); that particular perception was primarily Schorr’s own, not much shared within the newsroom, because the reality wasn’t so clear-cut.

Schorr taught a different kind of lesson because he left CBS and wound up on NPR, with its smaller audience. The fear of suffering a compa­ra­ble fate is eloquently described by Christopher Plummer, playing Mike Wallace in the movie The Insider, and yes, it’s a fear that was com­mon­ly expressed in real life around CBS. Broadcast journalists get accus­tomed to a platform of a certain size, to say nothing of the perks that come with it, and naturally they’re nervous about losing any of that.

Another lesson to take away from Schorr was the peril of dullness. He could make any story, no matter how important, seem tedious. I’m no fan of “show-business values” in journalism, but I do believe it’s a good idea to hold the attention of the reader, viewer, or listener.

Yet for this observer, what was really striking was the personal lesson that other reporters took away from Dan Schorr. There’s a great out­pour­ing of admiration for the man right now, and I’m sure that’s gratifying to his family. Some of the admiration comes from reporters I admire (Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Bill Moyers), and to a degree, it’s deserved. But it can’t match Schorr’s admiration for himself.

Even in broadcast journalism — hardly an environment known for self-effacement, where those who don’t blow their own trumpets are never heard from again — Schorr stood out from all the rest. His ego was commented on and pondered. “Am I like that? I’d hate to be like that. I have to try harder to be more modest in future.” I have known re­port­ers to say to their friends, “Don’t let me be like Dan Schorr,” and they weren’t talking about ratings.

It’s possible that his vanity was a defense mechanism, though my few, split-second encounters with him don’t give me much insight into his psychology. From all outward appearances, however, he came to believe his own marketing, and though his ethical conduct in the leak scandal was murkier than you may recall,* he ceaselessly represented himself, in tones of self-satisfaction mingled with self-pity, as a martyr to his principles.

A few years later, the famous stipulation of his contract with Ted Turner — that he never be called upon to do anything that would violate his professional ethics — carried his martyr-branding further, but to many of us, it seemed like blatant grandstanding. For one thing, it supposes that other reporters do violate their own ethics, whereas in reality they’re out there every day, arguing and debating with each other and with their bosses, and sometimes resigning over matters of principle, without calling this sort of attention to themselves.

Moreover, Schorr’s contract contained the insulting suggestion that his new employer would, sooner or later, engage in unethical conduct and call on him to collaborate. This gave a viewer scant incentive to watch CNN when Schorr himself wasn’t on camera. Oh, how fortunate we were, that the spotless Schorr would deign to shine among such shady characters — and purely for our benefit! It’s no wonder that CNN asked him to remove that clause before renewing his contract, but by then, Schorr had figured out his public role, and he continued to play it.

He was often identified as one of “Murrow’s Boys,” though in truth the term applies exclusively to those who worked with Edward R. Murrow during World War II; Schorr came along several years later. But (among other practical advantages) association with Murrow facil­i­tated a certain kind of pronouncement on matters of professional ethics. This enabled Schorr to speak out frequently, and I don’t by any means disagree with the general ideal he endorsed.

Yet I don’t think he ever did as much good on those occasions as he did by serving as a negative model. As bad as you may think TV anchors and reporters are, they could be worse; the personal character of a generation of journalists has been uplifted by their sincere efforts not to turn into a self-important windbag like him.

*NOTE: For a while, it looked as if Lesley Stahl would be the martyr in the leak scandal — because Schorr let her twist in the wind when suspicion fell on her instead of on him. Many people in the business never forgave him for that.

Read more!

23 July 2010

The Grace of Her Eyes, the Mercy of Her Voice

Road Show: Susan and Malcolm stopped off in London
on their “Frisson Français” tour in 2009.

The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham celebrates her birthday today, and I celebrate Susan. I’ve written about her frequently on this blog, including this account of her recital in Brussels, in June 2009.

Susan’s singing of Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris” brought me to tears that night. She sang it the night we met, sealing my love for her, and each time she’s sung it since, it’s seemed a special gift offered directly to me. Her repertoire is vast, yet if she never sang anything else, the way Bianca Castafiore sings nothing but the Jewel Song, I’d be content. Susan’s connection to this music — and through it, to me — is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, the most vivid demonstration conceivable of the tender mercy of song. But this was the first time that her “À Chloris” made me cry.

Irresistible Susan
(Apologies to Malcolm, who is much handsomer in life than this in picture.)

I share that performance with you now: although I’m morally conflicted about such unauthorized recordings, I’m selfishly grateful, too, that this souvenir of a precious moment endures and can be attended by people who weren’t present. At the time, I had no way of knowing that I’d ever be able to return to this performance, but I understood it as special: among the many voices you hear in the audience, murmuring with recognition and pleasure as Malcolm Martineau plays the opening notes of “À Chloris,” you may hear my voice, too.

I savored each second, clinging to the notes as if to a lifesaver. I use the metaphor with cause: more than once, Susan’s various renditions of this song have gotten me through rough times, and that night in Brussels was one such a time; it’s possible that, had she never sung “À Chloris,” I wouldn’t be here today.

That’s what the song is about, after all. A love song from a man who has suffered and who dared not expect anything but more pain in return for his love; and yet he has found in another man a happiness that not even kings may know.

“This is not the time for death to take me, to exchange my good fortune just to satisfy Heaven! All that men say of ambrosia can’t match the fantasy inspired in me by the grace of your eyes.”

The Met’s production of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust
featured projections of Susan’s face; some were three stories tall.
Now that’s my idea of scenic design!

You hear in Susan’s voice that transcendent serenity that comes from the gratification of a wish long deferred, but also the hush of a voice almost fearful that the spell will be broken and the present happiness taken away. After all, the song begins with a conditional: “If it’s true, Chloris, that you love me — and I hear that you love me well….”

That’s very much the way I feel while Susan sings “À Chloris”: blissfully happy, and yet almost too much so, then wary that something will go wrong. A cell phone may go off; somebody may cough, or blow up the theater. The world may end and I may die, without ever hearing the rest of the song. “This is not the time for death to take me!” But Susan keeps drawing me nearer, not letting me think about anything but the music, sustaining the bliss and compelling me to follow it until, in the amber of her voice, I am still.

When she was done that night in Brussels, I sat unbreathing, motion­less but for the tears streaming down my face. A lot of us seem to have been transfixed this way: you hear the beginning of the applause, rather modest, but the clip ends before you can hear what came after: a building roar, a joyful noise from every man and woman present.

I realize now that this was the answer Chloris must have given to his lover: what matters is that we shared this beauty. On this night, in this place, in this lifetime, we were together. Whatever happens after, we have shared this.

All of us were connected that night to Chloris and to his poet, Théophile de Viau; to the composer, Reynaldo Hahn, and his lover, Marcel Proust; to Susan and Malcolm; and to each other. Even those of us who have no voice had joined in the song by listening, and what each of us had felt, we all felt. We were better for it.

This is why we need art, and more specifically, this is why I need Susan Graham.

A birthday toast to Susan!

Read more!

19 July 2010

The Wrong Man: A Retrospective

Monuments from Ancient Times:
Mark Lee and Mel Gibson

In the early 1980s, when I was an officer of the Brown Film Society, we booked what I billed as the world’s first Mel Gibson Retrospective, two movies highlighting the young actor’s early work (Gallipoli), as well as his even earlier work (Mad Max). At the time, of course, he’d made hardly any other movies at all, and he was little-known in America. To most fans of Mad Max, I daresay he wasn’t even known by name: he was just “Max.” But fans of Gallipoli knew who he was, or thought they did.

For many of us, Gallipoli was only in part a meditation on the romance of the British Empire, and how it misled and betrayed young Australians like the two heroes, Archy and Frank. Likewise, for many Americans, the film’s analysis of the Australian concept of “mates” probably didn’t connect: what we saw was a love story between men in wartime.

In the film, Gibson, as Frank, and Mark Lee, as Archy, are a matched set, phenomenally beautiful and gorgeously photographed. There’s nothing overt about their love, but in that era before the New Queer Cinema, what we saw was enough: theirs was a love that did not need to speak its name. Together, Frank and Archy entered our fantasies, because, make no mistake, Mel Gibson’s first fan base in America was gay. We discovered him first, and we were probably the first to realize what a pig the man is.

Gibson rewarded our affection with crude, bigoted remarks that revealed not only ingratitude but a complete disregard for us — notably in an infamous interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 1991. The resulting backlash probably explains why it’s nearly impossible to find a clear copy of the publicity photo below: we didn’t keep Gibson’s pin-up, we threw it out, and that’s why nobody has a copy to scan and upload to the Internet today.

“With this look, who’s going to think I’m gay?”
The hell of it is, not only does he look like us,
but many of us were trying to look like him.

Since 1991, he’s made similarly offensive remarks about other groups, notably blacks, women, and Jews; and in both his films and his private life he’s displayed a lurid conflation of violence and sex.

Thanks to his latest outburst, the general public (including two op-ed columns in The New York Times this weekend) seems to be paying attention at last to what a messed-up lout Gibson is. But gays are saying, “What took you so long?” We were wise to him two decades ago.

The more demanding role

In Gallipoli, Gibson had the more demanding role, particularly in the harrowing final sequence, when he must explore extremes of emotion that Mark Lee is never called upon to approach. This explains part of our disappointment: it’s not merely that an early crush has betrayed us, but that a genuine talent has been squandered. For a long time — believe it or not — Gibson took his work seriously, and in several films there are scenes that suggest that he could have become a fine actor.

In the mutiny scenes in Bounty, for example, he taps into a seemingly uncontrolled desperation and fury that hoist the whole picture into another realm, and it’s interesting to watch him opposite Anthony Hopkins. You can see Gibson studying the superior actor, trying to rise to that higher level, much the way he studies Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously. In Hamlet, Gibson gives an intelligent, conscien­tious performance, though he’s clearly out of his depth. While he often seems uncomfortable as “just a pretty face,” he exploits a feline, teasing sexuality in many of his early films, notably and homoerotically so in scenes with Mark Lee, Hopkins, and Hunt.

Macho Max: A taste for leather.
Nothing cuir about that.

And yet these are his characters, not his character. When we came to see the distinction between the two — and worse, when we came to see how his personal character informed his work (in Braveheart, for example, to say nothing of his later films) — we gave up on him.

We look back and wonder what went wrong, how someone so sensitive and, yes, beautiful could have turned out so rotten. Manifestly, success went to his head. He’s got father issues, too, and given the nature of the senior Gibson, that’s understandable to a degree. By his own admis­sion, many of his foulest remarks have been made under the influence of alcohol. And for a long time, he’s seemed excessively concerned with proving his macho credentials, onscreen and off, though it’s not clear who was disputing them.*

But while we’re looking back, we return inevitably to Gallipoli, and we look at the other guy once again. Mark Lee came to that film with limited experience (he was a model, not an actor), and while in middle age he’s still a striking figure, he’s no longer the beauty he was. He never became a star, but he kept working where he could, never making a fuss. If he holds noxious views on women and minorities, he’s kept them to himself.

In short, we fell for the wrong man. And it’s past time to move on.

Would it have been wrong to give our hearts to him?
A recent photograph of Mark Lee

*From the El País interview: “With this look, who’s going to think I’m gay? I don’t lend myself to that type of confusion. Do I sound like a homosexual? Do I talk like them? Do I move like them? What happens is when you're an actor, they stick that label on you.”

George Miller, who directed Gibson in Mad Max,
often works with pigs.
Here, James Cromwell joins Babe, who is a valiant pig,
as opposed to that other kind.

Read more!

18 July 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 20

Millet: The Planters of Potatoes



Cleaning the kitchen furniture; — shelving; — the table; — the stove; — the doors; — the windowpanes; — objects made of glass, carafes and drinking glasses.

The time goes very quickly here, too quickly for my taste, since now the days are growing shorter and shorter, letting me know that my month in the country is coming to an end.

While awaiting our departure, we busied ourselves ceaselessly, whether in the garden, whether in the house. There is always something to be done: gathering fruits or vegetables, light gardening, cleaning the house, quickly mending a skirt that wore out during one of our walks, etc., etc.… Tante Victoire finds time for everything, and truly, around her, I feel that I am learning much. I am learning above all the art of using my time well, not to work the wrong way and backwards, starting one thing, leaving it for another, such as bad housekeepers do, it appears.

Anker: Girl Peeling Potatoes

This morning, the rain confounded our plans. It wasn’t possible to go for a long walk, as we had the intention to do. I profited from the time by writing a long letter to my mother. This dear Maman has been so worried to know if I were not spending all my time in having fun, or in uselessness. I reassured her in telling her in a few words how I spend my days. As far as what I am learning here, I told her that she would find the details in this journal, and that I will give it to her to read upon my arrival at our home.

In order that it be exact, I must write down here that which we did yesterday.

More cleaning! Oh, yes, cleaning neither boring nor quite tiring, I assure you, and which gave the house an altogether agreeable aspect.

First in the kitchen, we cleaned the furniture and diverse other objects.

This armoire is the right kind of wood, but probably too fancy
to stand in a kitchen.

Tante Victoire’s furniture isn’t new. Certain pieces are even very old, but all are well maintained and give one pleasure to look at. There is in the kitchen an armoire in walnut that is almost black, but so well waxed and polished that it shines as if it were varnished. There is also a large buffet in light-colored wood. It was this that she taught me to clean.

We first removed everything that it contained. We then washed the shelves with very hot eau de cristaux*, in which we had melted some soap, using a brush to scrub and a sponge to gather the water. Then we scrubbed the same way with fresh water, at last with water into which Tante Victoire had poured some bleach. We wiped it with a dry rag, in such a way to make it dry faster, and we left the buffet open a good hour to let it dry in the fresh air.

While it was drying, we cleaned the drawers in the same manner. Then I looked for some old newspapers which I had cut and folded in the dimension of the shelves. The buffet being dry, each shelf was covered with these newspapers and we did the same with the drawers. Then the objects were replaced in the buffet as they had been before.

We acted in the same way for the shelves that are around the kitchen, washing them, scrubbing them, wiping them, placing paper on them. I even cut a kind of lace out of blue paper in long strips, and I applied these as a decoration along the shelving, for a pretty effect.

After the shelving, we cleaned the tables in the same manner as the buffet, then we passed to the washing of the doors, always a bit unclean in the places where one’s hand touches them. About this, Tante Victoire said to me: “I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t take the precaution to touch doors only by the handles or the knobs. That’s what they’re there for, and never, thanks to them, should a door become dirty around the edges. I strongly recommend,” she added, “that you mind that yourself, I am sure that you close the door without touching the knob.”

George Sand’s kitchen, at Nohant

Tante Victoire was right, Tante Victoire had guessed it. What little girl does not do the same?….

Well, it is quite delicate, this cleaning of doors dirtied by fingers, and now that I know how one cleans them, I swear that I shall take more care not to dirty them.

One does not set out by using eau de cristaux* nor black soap nor bleach for this. A bit of white soap and lukewarm water, that’s all, since it is necessary to take care not to deteriorate the paint on the door. One rubs the dirty places lightly with a somewhat fine rag, and then one pours fresh water over it, in such a way as to remove the soap without rubbing. Then one wipes with a very clean cloth, but sponging and not rubbing.

There was nothing left to clean but the stove and the windowpanes. The stove was scrubbed with a rag coated with plumbago,** then brushed with a stiff brush, which made it shine.

My hands were quite black after this operation, but a bit of lukewarm water and some soap made that disappear.

As for the windowpanes, we used Spanish whiting [See previous lesson] diluted with water to clean them. With a little rag coated with this mixture, the panes were rubbed, especially along the wooden moulding that framed them, and especially in the corners. We let them dry for a half-hour. At the end of this time, we wiped them by rubbing briskly with a fine cloth.

A window from the home of Proust’s aunt, in Illiers-Combray

Tante Victoire tells me that a piece of chamois, such as one finds at the bazaar, makes windowpanes shine even more brightly and facilitates the work. But in Valfleury we have neither chamois nor bazaar where it might be bought, so we simply made use of an old piece of calico; I asked of Tante Victoire if one could not use any rags this way, whatever they were. She told me that one must not use old canvas and above all not old linen which leaves too much lint on the panes.

I also learned an excellent means of cleaning glass, carafes, drinking glasses, bottles and flasks of all sorts. Here is the recipe:

Take some thick paper such as that which wraps sugar cakes, rip it into small pieces and place it in a vase with some water and a bit of white soap. It forms a sort of paste, with which one rubs the glass objects inside and out. Then rinse with fresh water and wipe with a cloth that leaves no lint.

I wanted to note these recipes in my journal, since they will probably be useful to me later, and what is more, I shall prove this way to Maman that I did not waste my time in the country, which will encourage her to let me go another time.


[To copy and to keep]

1. I shall remember that steamed potatoes must be served very hot, and for this I shall take care to place them in a napkin which will be placed on the dish in which they will be carried to the table.

2. With steamed potatoes, I shall place salt and fresh butter on the table, which will serve as their seasoning.

3. I shall take care that potatoes in a sauce or purée do not stick to the pot where they will cook, for that will render them unpleasant to eat.

4. I shall remember that green peas must cook slowly, over a low flame.

5. To polish a buffet of light-colored wood, I shall use very hot eau de cristaux, soap and bleach that I shall employ with a brush; I shall wipe then with a rag.
I shall clean tables and shelves in the same manner.

The kitchen at Illiers-Combray

6. I shall cover with paper the kitchen shelving, those shelves inside the buffet, and I shall do the same with the drawers.

7. To clean the stove, I shall use plumbago and I shall polish it with a stiff brush.

8. I shall remember that doors must be washed with great care and delicacy, if I want to avoid removing the paint. To do this, I shall use only soapy water, I shall rub lightly with a very clean cloth and never with a brush.

9. When there is a question of washing drinking glasses, carafes or any other objects made of glass, I shall make a paste of heavy paper, a bit of soap and some water, and I shall rub these objects with this paste inside and out.

Next time: Plum preserves — and desserts!



144. Potatoes are, of all the vegetables, those which are eaten most often and which can be appreciated in the most varied ways. They are a precious resource for households with small means and are never harmful when they are quite ripe and in good condition.

Van Gogh: The Potato-eaters

145. Potatoes au naturel (or steamed or boiled in their nightgowns).
Take good, quite mealy potatoes; cook them, without peeling or cutting them up, in a half-covered pot with just enough water for them to bathe in, but no more, and a handful of salt.
Let them cook at full boil until the potatoes are cooked, which we can tell when the skin begins to split. Then remove them from the pot, dry them, and serve them under a napkin, to keep them hot.

146. Sautée potatoes or maître d’hôtel style. — The potatoes being cooked whole and unpeeled in boiling water, as we have just told you, peel them and cut them into slender rondelles that one places in a pot over the fire with a good bit of butter. Salt, pepper, turn them several times without letting them grill. Serve with an accompaniment of chopped parsley and lemon juice.

147. Potatoes in white sauce. — The potatoes being cooked whole and unpeeled in boiling water, cut them into rondelles, place them on a dish and pour over them a sauce blanche.

148. Potatoes au roux. — Make a light brown roux, “moisten” it with water or with bouillon; add peeled potatoes cut into pieces, along with a few slices of onion, salt and pepper, and cook. It is necessary to stir them often while cooking so that they do not stick to the bottom of the pot and so that they get a bit crushed.
Sometimes one adds a garnish of grilled sausages around the potatoes au roux.

149. Potatoes with bacon. — Brown lardons [small bits of bacon], both fatty and lean, in a brown roux. When the bacon takes color, add raw potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces.
When they are a bit crushed, the ragoût is cooked. If the bacon has produced a great deal of grease, degrease before serving.

150. Fried potatoes. — The raw potatoes being peeled, cut them, either in fairly thin slices, or in quarters, or in the shape of small sticks [French fries!], then throw them into a skillet filled with very hot frying oil.
When they are golden, remove them from the frying oil with a skimmer, place them in a colander where they drain, dust them with fine salt and serve them very hot.
These several operations must be done very quickly, otherwise the potatoes will soften while getting cold, and they will no longer be good.

151. Purée of potatoes. — Crush in a colander or with the help of a potato-masher the very hot potatoes, cooked in water and peeled. Lighten this purée with some milk, pour it into a pot and place it over the fire with a large piece of butter. Salt lightly and let cook for about a quarter-hour. The purée should have the consistency of a very thick porridge.

152. Boiled artichokes. — Use scissors to cut the extreme tips of the leaves and boil the artichokes in salted water. We know that the artichokes are cooked when a leaf can be detached easily. Then remove them from the water, drain them and with the handle of a spoon, remove, from the center, that which is called the straw. The leaves that surround this straw are removed at the same time and look like a hat. This hat is then replaced on the part that one has dug out.
Serve artichokes accompanied by a vinaigrette or a sauce blanche. — The sauce is served on the side, in a gravy boat.

153. Asparagus. — Asparagus are cooked in boiling water. It is necessary to take care to scrape them lightly with a knife before cooking them. We know when they are cooked when their flesh begins to give under the finger.
Serve accompanied by a sauce blanche or a vinaigrette.

154. Cauliflower. — Make the cauliflower “ready,” that is to say, remove the green leaves and the trunk. Cook it in boiling and salted water. When it is cooked, remove it, drain it, serve it arranged on a dish, surrounded by a somewhat thick white sauce. It is also eaten accompanied by a vinaigrette sauce served on the side.

155. Green beans. — After having peeled them, removing with the fingernails the two extremities and having pulled out the strings, cook them in salted water and eat them sautéed in butter or as a salad.***

156. Dry beans, lentils, split peas. — Soak them in cold water for several hours, which will make them easier to cook afterward.
Remove them from this water and put them on the fire in a fresh pot of water, with salt and one whole onion. When they give to the touch, they are cooked. Then remove them from the fire, drain them, and season them in any of several ways. Most often, we “sautée” them in butter, or we prepare them with a “roux blond,” or else we eat them as a salad. We also make purées of them, which is easy to prepare with the help of a colander or a potato-press.

Today, French restaurants serve a wide variety of Bean,
sometimes with shellfish.

157. Green peas.Green peas must be cooked over a low flame and slowly.
Put them in a pot with a piece of fresh butter, a bouquet of parsley, a lettuce heart, a piece of sugar, and a pinch of salt. When they are tender but not wrinkled, they are cooked and ready to serve. Sometimes we “bind” them with an egg yolk.

158. Sorrel, spinach, chicory, lettuce. — Prepare sorrel, spinach, chicory and lettuce all the same, in this manner:
After having removed the stem and the hard part of the rib, cook the leaves in boiling and salted water. After a quarter-hour, press them in a strainer to remove the water, then chop them finely, in such a way as to give them the consistency of a purée.
Then place the sorrel or the spinach in a pot with a good piece of fresh butter, a spoonful of flour, some milk, or even better some cream, so that they will not cook in their own juices. Let cook for a quarter-hour.
Sorrel is often served as a garnish with hard-boiled eggs or with boiled veal.

* NOTE: I’m not sure what the “crystals” in “eau de cristaux” may be: one educated guess is that they’re soda, and not the baking kind. In this case, as in the case of plumbago (see note below), products used for household cleaning in 1895 were extremely hazardous. I don’t recommend that you use them. The stuff we use today is bad enough.

**See the note above. “Plumbago,” or “plombagine” as Madeleine knew it, was a substance composed of graphite — or lead. Do not use this. (If you can even find any.) Henri Boutrit’s method of cleaning ironware was to rub the surface in question with coarse salt, using a piece of newspaper.

***It’s a good idea to let the green beans and other legumes cool off a bit before trying to eat them as a salad. Lukewarm, they’re pretty good this way, especially in a vinaigrette with chopped shallots. But if the beans are still piping hot — ouch. I’m not sure why our esteemed author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons, didn’t mention this. Perhaps it’s another of those things that French schoolgirls in 1895 were born knowing.

Read more!