Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Plato's Cave Film Festival 

Remember "The Republic"? No? Shame on you. I was fortunate to take the renowned Michael McCarthy's intro to Greek philosophy class at Vassar. It was straight out of The Dead Poet's Society. Mr. McCarthy was literally prone to desk walking and accidental chalk flinging in his flights of passion about the subject matter at hand. Every class was like a thrill ride as he dove into the room and began engaging the class in the latest text we had read.

In any case, "The Republic" contains a famous section referred to as "Plato's cave analogy" wherein a group of people living at the bottom of a deep cave are described. Our protagonist describes how living in the cave and knowing only life in the cave, these people believe that the shadows they see on the wall are real. And respond to them as such. Plato describes the stages of their ascent where they learn about the source of the light (the torch) that creates the shadows and gradually have the metaphorical cobwebs removed from their eyes until they stand blinded in the daylight, marveling at trees and what we know as "reality".

Any number of films have followed this premise where the protagonists have the shock of discovering that what they hold to be reality is but a shred of the truth. When you're ready for it, cue these films up...

Dark City
Few people saw director Alex Proyas' film, which is a pity. Except for Keefer Sutherland's outlandishly bad performance, this is a strikingly original film visually and to some extent in its plot. It's definitely worth watching and has some wonderful conceits about how the "cave" part of the world (to continue to follow the Platonic metaphor) is manipulated during the night. Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt star.

Fight Club
I resisted seeing this film because of its reputed violent nature. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it when I finally borrowed the DVD from a neighbor. The basic storyline is very tight, but the direction is what's most outstanding. Fincher has proven himself to be one of the most effective directors in using digital technology to enhance his films in ways that are truly layered and filmic (e.g., doing things that only make sense and only add value in a film). I don't love all of his films as he tends towards too much violence for my taste (see the stylish, but needless Seven), but there's no denying his talent.

The Game
Another stylish outing from director David Fincher (that predates Fight Club). Michael Douglas, Sean Penn and Deborah Unger have a blast in this twisting turning story about a man who has been given the most incredible birthday present/lifestyle intervention in history.

The Matrix
No need to opine too much here. Either you've seen it, or you have been living in the woods for the last 5+ years.

The Others
OK. I'm a total wussy. The TRAILERS scared me so much that I was afraid to see this movie. But when I finally watched the DVD, I was so impressed. A great performance from Nicole Kidman and a wonderfully specific universe created by director, Alejandro Almenabar (see Abre los ojos below).

The Sixth Sense
Ever since Terry Gilliam stripped Bruce Willis of his traditional tics for Twelve Monkeys, Willis has been able to turn in increasingly subtle and nuanced performances. This film is a prime example. There are so many things that are impressive about M. Night Shymalan's debut. Too bad he hasn't equaled it since.

Total Recall
OK. It's Arnold. But really, it's Verhoeven and Philip K. Dick. It can be seen as a by-the-numbers space opera. But I defy you to tell me at the end, why does it fade to WHITE, not black? What is real?

The Truman Show
Plato's cave moved to the dystopian almost-present. Given the glut of "reality TV", does this 1998 film see so far fetched now? To me it feels utterly and eerily prescient. Peter Weir's early career had highlights such as the haunting The Last Wave, Gallipoli, and The Year of Living Dangerously, The Truman Show gave us hope that maybe he wouldn't do another Green Card.

Vanilla Sky/Abre los ojos
Same movie, shot for shot in 2 languages. Should be seen on the same day as The Others so as to reunite Tom and Nicole.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Boutique Nibbles 

So once in a while,  you find in the grips of a particularly niche desire. You don't have to be pregnant or even female. It just happens. And thanks to the web, there's always a place to scratch that culinary itch! Over time, I've chanced into a few online resources that are both special and specialized.

Montana Beef Jerky
OK. I know. Beef = mad cow. BUT, you can always order the buffalo jerky! This all started when a former SCNT colleague named Mike K. took an obsessive cross country trip to visit every major league baseball stadium in America. Truthfully, I wouldn't know if professional sports ceased to be played (well, I would miss Olympic figure skating...but I'm a Vassar boy). So I didn't so much read Mike's emails because I cared about the stadiums. I just love quirky. And his emails qualified. In the course of feeding one obsession, it turned out Mike had a few others that kept sidetracking his story and I came to love the subplots about the pursuit of ribs and jerky. Somewhere around Colorado, if memory serves me correctly, Mike stumbled into the Montana Beef Jerky Company and helpfully provided a URL. Before I knew it, my freezer was filled with jerky. Jerky, Jerky, Jerky! I recommend the teriyaki. YUM.

The Nutty Guys
This was the first year that K. and I went to Sundance.  Film festivals are in part about nibbling. Especially if you're really "doing it" and seeing 4-5 films a day. So somewhere along the way between Primer and Super Size Me we found ourselves munching on bags of dried frut and nuts. And boy were they good. If you're a secret squirrel yourself, you should check out The Nutty Guys.

You're obsessed with a recipe for some exotic ethnic food and you can't find the ingredients. Well, if you live in The City, you can go to Lexington and 28th Street to Kalustyans and solve your problem. I guarantee it. Indian, Pakistani, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Greek, Turkish, Syrian...you name it, they have it. You can lose yourself for hours in this two story wonderland. But if you don't live in The City, you can browse the website. Not nearly as comprehensive, but it gives you an idea. And then you can just call them if you don't see what you want. I bet you they have it.

Ah, Penzey's. This discovery was the product of Robert & Connie's wedding in Minneapolis. K. and I were wondering around in Uptown (which strangely is south of downtown area) and we chanced into a Penzey's retail store. We stayed for an hour reading the labels on the spices. If you're looking for 15 kinds of black pepper, this is your place. And the catalogue is chockablock with estoteric details, like the difference between cinnamon variants. (As a side note, you want to know something really freaky? Read about cashews! Who knew they were the source of rocket lubricant?!)

Adriana's Caravan
Rochelle Z. used to own a retail store on the UWS called Adriana's Bazaar. One day, much to our chagrin, the store was gone. We wondered what had happened because Rochelle was very open about her fight with cancer and we were concerned that her illness was the cause of the closing. But then we kept reading in foodie magazines that the source for whatever unusual spice their recipes called for was Adriana's Caravan. Hmmm, we wondered. Could it be Rochelle? It was and it is. And we were delighted when she cropped up in Grand Central Market with another retail location. But for the rest of the world, you can find her spice catalog online if you need something exotic.
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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Bad Customer Experience Experts 

So there are a lot of folks running around these days talking about the importance of "customer experience." And some companies have really grasped this concept and deliver excellence time and again. Case in point: Amazon. They have never failed to delight me with their online customer experience (although they have completely hidden their 800 number). At any rate, a recent situation has inspired me to honor some of the true experts in bad customer experience.
The infamous "Yours is a Very Bad Hotel" story brought home to many just how outrageously bad some companies are at providing a good customer experience. Here are a few of the worst offenders:

Best Buy

aka Worst Buy.  I got a $150 gift card for Best Buy and I can not for the life of me seem to be able to use it. Of course, I started by trying to use it online. But you can't use a Best Buy giftcard on their website!
So I decided that I wanted to use it either for a Mini iPod or a low-profile air conditioner. After going to three stores in two states, I was:
1) Almost entirely unable to find sales help on the floor in either of the two different states that I tried (Yonkers, NY and Seekonk, MA) and in the rare case that I did, I was literally abandoned in order for this guy to escort an attractive female customer to the door with her purchase. I'm not kidding you.
2) Completely unable to find either item in stock.
3) Entirely unable to find out when they might be in stock.
Finally, in desperation I decided to call ahead to an NYC location and save myself the trip. But their expertise in bad customer experience extends to the phone, where I was put on hold and then disconnected.
Then I wrote them an email describing my troubles and sparing few adjectives. What was my response? Suzanne from Customer Service wrote, "Thank you for sharing your comments with Best Buy. Please don't hesitate tocontact us with additional questions or concerns." 

aka "Gilligan's Island". I warn everyone who suggests that we go there for something "quick" that "You realize that we're going to Gilligan's Island, don't you?" They inevitably respond with, "How do you mean?" And I say, "It was supposed to be a 3 hour tour and 5 seasons later they were still there."
And it's true, no task at Kinko's that involves intervention or "help" from their staff will EVER take the time that it should. And the time it takes it to complete at task at Stinko's seems to be an inverse proportion to reality everywhere else on the planet. Simple business cards? A week.  (They have to send it to headquarters somewhere in wilds of the fly over states for production.) 100 color copies? A month. ("The color copiers are broken all over The City.") Making a single copy? A year. ("It only takes a Kinko's card now and our card reader is broken.")

Nextel technology? Rock solid. Nextel Customer Service? Pronounce it carefully after me, "Puuuure eeeeevil!" Run by Beelzebub or maybe Baal. Really. These people lie to you and sign you up for contracts you don't agree to. Then they have the nerve to tell you that "Our records indicate you said, 'Yes' to our representative on the phone." The network coverage is great, the signal is great. But god forbid you decide they're too expensive and try to port your number somewhere else.

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Monday, July 12, 2004

Guilty Pleasures Film Festival 

Will Ferrell made merry mayhem the other day at CNBC. While I have no intention of paying money to see Anchorman, which looks like a pretty silly film, I have to admit that there are any number of ostensibly bad movies that I have watched joyously far too many times. Brain cells be damned! Here's a few of them...

American Pie
Considering the hype about the pie-snogging, one would have thought that this was going to be a truly low-brow endeavor of the bottom order. What a surprise to discover that the young cast, ably abetted by master of silliness Eugene Levy, was in fact running through the paces of a classic high school, coming of age comedy, ala Risky Business. The quoteable lines ("MILF! MILF!) will be resurfacing for years.

There's Something About Mary
Another film who's hype focused on the highest point of sexually-derived humor in the film, TSAM turned out to be a movie with a surprisingly homey, true love message. Who knew? Based on the press, I had determined never to see this film. When I finally did, I found myself seeing it more than once (on cable) and being amused each time.

Saving Silverman
OK. This is a REALLY BAD MOVIE. Neil Diamond saves the day? C'mon! Killer raccoon? A direct steal from Python and TSAM. And yet...I LOVE THIS MOVIE. Look at the cast: Jack Black, Jason Biggs, Amanda Peet AND Steve Zahn? Let the madness begin.

In some ways, this is the guiltiest pleasure. Director Peter Chelsom made the truly original Funny Bones and some less memorable things after. And then this movie which chock full of formula romance. And yet, John Cusack is awfully watchable as an actor. And Kate Beckinsale...well...rwooowr. But what a peculiar concoction this is. And I keep watching it!
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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Wishing there were more sentences 

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews the popular book Eats, Shoots and Leaves". (He's not exactly appreciative.) What most caught my attention in the piece were a few comments about writing and the effect of good writing.

In this context, Menand quotes W.H. Auden's letter to The Nation magazine about their movie reviewer James Agee:

"I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them. Further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, attracts epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to readng him again."

In addition to the eloquence with which Auden writes even a simple letter to the editor (natch), there's something I love about the fact that Auden is so taken by Agee's writing that he reads the reviews even though he doesn't care for criticism, nor for movies. :-O

Menand then goes on to say:

"A lot of the movies that James Agee reviewed...when he was the Nation's film critic were negligible then and are forgotten now. But you can still read his columns with pleasure. They continue to pass the test of good writing: itis more painful to stop reading them than it is to keep going. When you get to the end of Agee's sentences, you wish, like Auden, that there were more sentences."

Something about this put me in mind of what Holden Caulfield says, which I'll paraphrase as, "You know a writer is really good when you wish that he were a friend and you could call him up after you read his book to ask him questions." (I'll check that quote at a later date and replace my paraphrase.)

A specific works come to mind for me in this context, of wishing for "more sentences" and for the ability to know and dialogue with the author.

Admit it, you've never heard of John Crowley. Neither had I. But I have an odd habit. Sometimes, when I'm at a party I'll chance into an interesting person who has some connection to literature. I'll ask them, "Do you have a favorite author?" and if they do, I'll ask, "Which book should I start with?" In this case, I met someone who worked in a literary agency. His answer was John Crowley and Aegypt. He warned me, "You'll never find it. It's out of print." He wasn't kidding. It's not the easiest thing to come by. You can buy it online, but I challenge you to find it in a used book store.

In any case, Aegypt reached into my imagination and won me over. It's a great book for those of us who wondered from a very early age if perhaps there wasn't some sort of important information coded into ancient stories (an idea M. Night Shyamalan worked amusingly into Unbreakable).

Crowley is a mystic who weaves a compelling tale. He doesn't cheapen the esoteric information (Dan Brown) that underlies his fiction. He simply weaves it into a story of growing up and struggling with the glimpses we sometimes have into the greater fabric of the universe.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Michael Chabon's beautiful crafted story in which he uses the history of the development of comic books in the United States as a backdrop to explore such themes as exodus and exile, the American Dream, friendship, and how the early mythologies of the comic books served their creators as tools with which to imagine the futures they wished to make reality.

Arcadia and The Real Thing
I'm stepping out of the realm of traditional fiction in order to include a great playwright: Tom Stoppard. These two plays while best served on a stage, can also be read as literature.

Both treat themes of love and move through time in unusual ways to illustrate different points. The Real Thing examines a passionate marriage from it's breakdown backwards towards its initiation. Arcadia in some way echoes Greek themes of "curse of the house" by showing relationship patterns across generations in the same house.

Stoppard is in a curious category of masters of the English language for whom English is not their first language (his was Czech) in which one would have to include Validmir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad (Polish). All three authors run circles around the 99.99% of use who have used it since birth.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Ignore the movie! (You will hear this again below.) This is a wonderful piece of magical realism. It is funny, lyrical and often moving. He has some trouble with the ending (the hardest part and I forgive many books I otherwise adore for this issue), but it's an engaging read all the way through. My advice is to read the first chapter. If you're in, you're in. If not, move on.

Endless Love
Again, ignore the movie! The best thing that can be said about this novel was probably in the blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition on my shelf: "For a few hours of my life, it broke my heart." Synopsis: slightly obsessive young boy accidentally burns down his girlfriend's house and changes his life (and lives of their respective family members) forever.

Good god. A woefully misunderstood work of art. It seems almost blasphemous to try to use words to describe Nabokov's masterpiece. Instead, I'll note that in a shocking twist of fate, lowbrow director Adrian Lyne managed to make a very good film of it that no one ever saw.

Winter's Tale
This is the book that started the party line of "Do you have a favorite author?" In this case, the person being quizzed was a masters student in English who was engaged to a grad school classmate of mine. I had known him casually for two years. Finally, we had a real conversation. Thanks to Sean, I discovered one of the great writers of the last 20+ years. This book is a must for those who love Manhattan. Read it in the winter. You'll never see Grand Central the same way again. I promise.
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Thursday, July 01, 2004

Turkish Delight 

So I don't know if you've noticed, but The City has become hip to Turkish food. I remember about 8 years ago, we had a good Turkish restaurant on the UWS around 79th and Amsterdam called Istanbul. It didn't last long. The one "high end" Turkish restaurant was over on 57th Street called Deniz a la Turk. It isn't there anymore either.

These days, The City is chock-a-block with Turkish restaurants. And I'm not complaining about it, because they are by and large very good.

Ali Baba
Thanks to my friend Tim, I found Ali Baba on East 34th between Lex & 3rd. (To confuse matters slightly, they've just moved about 15 yards east. So if you've been there, it's not exactly where you think it is.) Ali Baba is a classic Turkish restaurant. It used to be a dive, but the new digs are much more mid-range and provide a nicer overall ambiance. They focus a fair bit on Turkish grilled cuisine (kebabs), but provide some dishes beyond that. It's a great value and the food has been good both times I've been there.

Located at 81st and 3rd, Beyoglu focuses on meze - what we would tend to think of as appetizers. Lots of small dishes from which it's easy to make a diverse meal. If you like trying "lots of little things", Beyoglu will suit your fancy. The ambiance is good and they have outdoor seating available if you want some good people watching while you nibble.

Thanks to Dan, one of my favorite culture vultures and the "project manager" of my film festival explorations (a post on that some other time), we discovered Divane (Div AH nay). Apparently, the owner has founded other restaurants, including Beyoglu (although, I understand he sold his portion in that venture). Just as Beyoglu focuses on meze, Divane focuses on kebabs and they do a bang up job. At 8th Avenue and 52nd, this is a great pre-theatre spot, too.

Tucked away on 71st between Columbus and CPW is Pasha. Terrific ambiance, good food and a pretty diverse menu of classics including the lamb and smoked eggplant delight known as Hunkar Beyendi (translation: "The Imam Fainted") and manti (tiny lamb ravioli with yogurt sauce).

Turkish Cuisine
At 9th Avenue and 44th is Turkish Cuisine. It doesn't look like much, but you can find reasonable Turkish Food. Unfortunately, the music is usually a bizarre melange of Middle Eastern trance and it doesn't do much for the digestion.

Turkuaz's store front doesn't hint at what's inside. At 100th & Broadway is a very large Turkish restaurant. Completely hung with carpets and tapestries (has the fire warden ever seen the inside of this place?), Turkuaz is a cavernous cave of Turkish titillation. Sometimes literally, when the vigorous belly dancers appear. (I haven't figured out how to predict what nights they might be performing. Some nights, it's a festival of shake-sheik-shake, and other nights...nothing.) The food has been consistently quite good, the menu large and full of most of the Turkish standards.
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