Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why Bruce and I are Cracking Open the Glenlivet

Not only is the storeroom cleaned up, everything dusted and vacuumed, no knickers on the bathroom floor... BUT, the ginormous new wing chair matches Bruce's scarf perfectly!

Quote of the Day

"Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing so gentle as real strength."

Saint Francis de Sales, French saint & bishop of Geneva (1567 - 1622)

Tonight I quoted the first part of the above, as spoken by Jennifer Jones to William Holden in Love is a Many Splendoured Thing (1955) and my friend gently informed me of the entire quote, which I certainly prefer.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Film! What it Usually is... and What it can be

As I was writing up this post I was reminded of my silly top ten lists handy reference lists on the difference between Hollywood-style movies and European movies.

Last Chance Harvey
(2008) is a predictable love story, with Dustin Hoffman as Harvey, a down-on-his-luck, socially-awkward American, visiting London to attend his somewhat-estranged daughter's wedding. Emma Thompson is a survey-taker at Heathrow, whose mother (Eileen Atkins!) is concerned that her middle-aged daughter get hitched soon. The two meet, and meet again and then things start happening in a very Hollywood way, complete with a trying-on-of-funny-dresses montage.

It was all pretty well put together, except for the casting of Dustin Hoffman. My friend and I could see the appeal of Emma Thompson's character and why he might fall for her. But there was no evidence as to why she might fall for him. In person and in personality he lacked deeply, with one redeeming quality, and that was that he had some facility as a jazz pianist. The fact that Hoffman is 20 years older than Thompson (at least) didn't help. Thompson's character was at the stage where she might be moving on from men in their 30s. Hoffman is 71. 71. Post-movie I made the comment that William H. Macy might have been a better choice. My friend suggested Al Pacino, and I thought that was perfect. Because no matter how old Pacino gets, that man will always have "IT." And Hoffman never had it to begin with.

And then there's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), which I quoted yesterday. In the 1980s BBC2 (or was it Channel 4?) showed a retrospective of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films. I watched them all, but it was this one that stayed with me. I borrowed the magnificent Criterion DVD from the library this week and watched the film for the first time in over 20 years.

I find it as moving as I did then. Brigitte Mira plays a cleaning lady in her 60s who falls in love with a Moroccan guest-worker at least 20 years younger than her. Mira was in her 60s when she made this film. At 93 she was interviewed and that was one of the wonderful extra features on the DVD. She's as lucid and playful as she ever was. Todd Haynes features also, talking about the inspiration that All That Heaven Allows (1955) provided for Fassbinder for this film, and for himself in Far From Heaven (2002). Ali is very much a retelling of All That Heaven Allows, but the cruelty of those around Emmi and Ali is more stylized, like the frozen tableaux of disapproving people staring at them. A chilling moment comes when Emmi introduces her husband to a co-worker. The woman's lip curl of disdain is quite chilling. Her children are appalling (her son-in-law played by Fassbinder himself). The end is perfect. This film took 16 days to film. It boggles the mind what is possible on a small budget when real artists are involved.

So... a film about people of different ages, different backgrounds, coming together in somewhat unexpected partnerings. One of these films moved me 20 years ago and moved me again now and probably always will. As for Harvey, he had his chance.

Photograph (lifted saucily from the Criterion website): Brigitte Mira as Emmi and El Hedi ben Salem as Ali.


I have received comments that the fiction part of my blog is a bit neglected. And indeed it is. I didn't read much at all last year, at least not for personal pleasure. I'm reading a little more now, but one book I did finish way back is Devil May Care. The new James Bond novel was written by Sebastian Foulks writing as Ian Fleming. So... yes, it's set in the 60s and as such has a delicious nostalgic way about it. What's not to like about a Bond book that has a heroine named Scarlett Papava and a thug called Chagrin?

It's a light read and a quick one, and I hope he's got a few more up his sleeve. I wonder if Barbara Broccoli has bought the film rights? It would seem the smart thing to do.


How I like to serve hummous: drizzled with a little olive oil, sprinkled with a tiny bit of paprika, sprinkled with pomegranate jewels...

Operalicious Week, from the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Jerry Springer: The Opera opened a week ago Friday at Hart House Theatre in the University of Toronto campus. Directed by Richard Ouzounian, better known as theatre critic in the area, it was enthusiastically performed with tons of energy and some surprising talent. And this time, I stayed till the end. The theatre itself has been part of a wonderful renovation of its lobby and entrance halls. Unfortunately the theatre itself still boasts incredibly uncomfortable seats with a deficiency of leg room. Anyway, the piece itself was occasionally clever, quite a lot of fun and magnificently vulgar, as you can imagine.

Fidelio isn't my bag entirely, lacking the psychological intricacies I seem to seek in much of my entertainment, but the Canadian Opera Company's production does feature Adrianne Pieczonka performing Leonore for the first time in her wonderful career, and a fine supporting cast. Oh yes... and a whole lot of stirring music, resonating beautifully throughout the Four Seasons Centre. I've heard that Beethoven's deafness contributed to the challenging, vertical vocal lines he composed for Fidelio, so it takes some singer to handle it, and Pieczonka does, with an expressiveness in her voice that is never compromised by the vocal agility she has to exhibit. She looks the part and acts the part.

The most heartbreaking moment takes place towards the end of the opera: her husband has been incarcerated unjustly for years. She has disguised herself as a man to work in the prison where she believes he is held. She finds him and bravely steps between him and his sworn enemy to save his life. When at last they are alone, he is dumbfounded by what she has done to save him. And this exchange takes place:

Florestan: My Leonore, what have you done for me?

Leonore: Nothing, my Florestan.

I tear up just typing it. Love conquers all... in Fidelio.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

Emmi: My God.

Ali: Don't cry. Please. Why cry?

Emmi: Because I'm so happy and so full of fear, too.

Ali: Not fear. Fear not good. Fear eat soul.

Brigitte Mira as Emmi and El Hedi ben Salem as Ali in Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), in German: Angst essen Seele auf.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

War and Peace

You'd expect a big book about a couple of big topics to be a sodding great big film. And so it is, in the hands of Sergei Bondarchuk. I was lucky enough to see this recently over three evenings. War and Peace (Voyna i Mir) (1967) took seven years to make, takes seven hours to watch, and broke records for numbers of extras (120,000) and cost to make. It's been estimated that if it were to be made today, it would cost close to $1 billion. All this sounds very impressive, but this is not just some bloated epic.

The cast is unknown to me: Vyacheslav Tikhonov very handsome and embittered as Prince Andrei, Lyudmila Savelyeva practically cornering the market on wide-eyed girlishness as Natasha, and the director Bondarchuk himself as the clumsy yet noble Pierre. The entire cast is magnificent. The 120,000 extras (mainly evident in the battle scenes) make today's use of CGI look appalling. Battle scenes were filmed on the exact locations, using the original plans and records of those fights. The sweeping shots of explosions and soldiers across the rolling plains are as real as it gets, and the effect is thrilling. The more intimate "Peace" scenes are gorgeous. The only quibble artistically would have to be the hair and makeup - of the actresses especially. The beehived dos, the eyeliner, blue shadow and pink lipstick is magnificently laughable, but that is a small problem when the entire achievement of War and Peace is so powerful.

Bondarchuk and his cinematographers indulge their romantic and artistic sensibilities to the extreme, with moving effect. Sweeping cinematography becomes surreal in moments as a character gazes upon a beloved oak tree, a meadow, or the sky - indeed nature is a character in itself here, the beauty of it, the resilience and fragility, and this was by far the aspect of this film that gripped me the most. Other wonderful moments of surprising camera tricks include a scene when Natasha, threatened with the possbility of remaining a wall flower at her first ball, gazes across the room of dancers, and the screen swims with her unshed tears. The film is movingly indulgent, not just a tool of the Soviet regime, but also a deeply felt expression of love and hope and longing and surely Bondarchuk is to be thanked for this. He held nothing back, even as he suffered two heart attacks during the years the film took to make.
For more fascinating trivia, read here.

Amazon has a bunch of versions available. I saw a six-hour version, but I believe this seven-hour DVD set is the one to get.

Friday, January 9, 2009

BPG, Friend of the Arachnid

Phobia is an interesting little trick of the mind. It usually makes no sense, and the conquering of one phobia often leads to the development of another. Neurotics unite! But, relentless psychic masochism aside, here's a little story about how a Blog Princess overcame her fear of our eight-legged friends... to an impressive extent for such a lily-livered old softy.

Now, I'd been afraid of spiders for as long as I can remember. On a family holiday in Italy, at the age of seven, I remember seeing a daddy-long-legs on my bedroom wall one afternoon, running like mad downstairs to where the family was hanging out, and my grandmother commenting on how my heart was racing. Someone had to kill the spider, and in years to come, I sort of learnt to kill my own spiders. I always felt bad about it. I'd read Charlotte's Web, and even though Charlotte gave me the creeps, she was such a good friend to Wilbur, and I can still see the image of the poor little porker crying in the straw because no-one would be his friend... no-one but a damned ugly spider.

This went on and on. Spiders came and spiders were killed. Splat... and I had to wash the walls again and another good magazine was wrecked. Then, at about the age of 30, my friend Dave and I were talking about a mutual friend who had a crippling fear of snakes. Her phobia made my phobia look pretty pathetic. This woman couldn't hear the word "snake" without starting to panic. I thought that she'd be well off getting some therapy, and mentioned that I might summon up the guts to do so sometime, as I knew that the common house spider was not a bad little guy to have around, as he'd deal with any other little creepy crawlies. I might have know that Dave would have a comeback for this. It took two weeks, but then he called me. I'd conveniently forgotten that he was working for the Clarke Institute for Psychiatry and he duly reported that they were performing a study to test the efficiency of their aversion therapy program and... they were using spiders! AND.. they needed volunteers who would each be willing to give a half-day of their time. Ruh roh.

I accepted this challenge with a queasy stomach, took a half-day vacation from work (my colleagues were amused) and reported for my afternoon. It was an interesting process. I spent the time, one-on-one, with a young female lab assistant, or... maybe she was head of the Wacko Department of Silly Fears, I'm not sure. She had a white coat on, so... either way. I filled out a questionnaire and was fitted with a wrist heart-rate monitor so she could see how my heart rate leapt (and stopped) throughout the afternoon.

Then we entered a large, empty lounge, full of ugly 1970s-era sofas. I sat (obediently) on one at the far end.

She explained very carefully that she was going to fetch the "control spider."

What in Sam Hill???

He would be in a sealed jar, in a large plastic box. Okay? Okay.

When she came back in, she had the box in her arms and put it on the coffee table in front of me. She told me that I would be asked to report on my comfort levels between 1 and 10 at different points in the afternoon; 10 being panicky, 1 being totally relaxed. How did I feel with the box in front of me? Fine, about a 2. Well, apparently, upon seeing her enter the room with the box, some people burst into tears, they were so afraid. I began to feel a bit better about my own phobia. It became clear that as much as I couldn't live with spiders, I was on the near side of the fear spectrum.

My smugness soon faded as we progressed. I was instructed to touch the closed jar with a pencil... with my finger... to pick it up... to look at the spider... to unscrew the top... to tap him out into the large plastic box... to touch him with the pencil... to touch him with my finger... to (OMG) let him crawl onto my hand.

Within 10 minutes the control spider (CS as I fondly called him after a while) was walking over my hands, one after the other, like a hamster. I marvelled at how he released his silk as he went. It was creepy and fascinating. How did this comfort happen so quickly? Well, I suppose it was because we were in a quiet, focussed environment and she talked me through it so calmly. The spider stopped at one point and she asked me

"What do you think he's doing?"

"Oh, I think he's planning something." (Embarrassed laugh.)

"He's a spider. He'd like to build a web, he'd like to catch a fly. He's not planning anything more than that."

"Uh huh."

And so it went. CS went back in the box after I'd played with him for about 20 minutes. Then... things got interesting. Different spiders were brought in, progressively bigger. It took time with each one. The lab was having an interesting time raising them and having enough to work with as most of them only lived about two weeks. Fascinating.

Finally, out came the daddy-long-legs. Oh boy.

Oh boy.

Ohhhhh boyyyyy.

"See how he sits on the wall?" she said. "The shadow he then casts is what makes him so intimidating."

"I'm about a billion times bigger than him.

"Yes... yes you are."

Reader, by the end of the afternoon, I had spiders walking up and down my arms, including the daddy-long-legs. Each time CS came in for a spot check, I was all over him... completely relaxed. It was truly amazing and one of those wonderful light-bulb-over-the-head moments. If I could overcome this, what else might I achieve? The lady I spent the afternoon with was a delight. And no, we never got into tarantulas. As she told me, there are some spiders you don't want to go near. What we were doing was to get me comfortable with the regular harmless house spider.

I left after a debriefing, with a sheet of paper with aversion therapy practice notes. They basically told me to keep handling spiders, dagnabit.

I got back to work and my waggish friend Mark had covered my work station with black plastic black widows. Witty boy.

The next day, another friend, Paula, on hearing that I needed to keep up my practice, dropped off a gift bag. I lifted out the jar. I couldn't see anything. Then I turned it over and nearly passed out. Sitting on the inside of the lid, nicely camouflagued, was no spider. It must have been a very small pony. When I finally tapped it out and lifted it up (heart racing), this thing had HEFT. I mean, it weighed something. That was my worse moment of all... but I survived!

How have I fared since then?

That winter I was at my parents' home one night and I found a spider in the kitchen. Not one to kill a spider now, I scooped him up onto some paper and put him outside, onto a thin crust of snow. I watched as he began to shrivel up and... brought him back inside.

Last summer, at a cottage, I was laying on the dark quilt on my bed one afternoon, and I saw a daddy-long-legs walking slowly down the wall to the bed, which was set against it. I idly watched him. I saw as he gingerly trod onto the quilt. And I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but I closed my eyes and continued napping. He was there somewhere on that quilt with me, but I was okay with that.


Anyway, that's my story. I'd love to hear about any phobias, whether they have been overcome or not. It's an interesting topic, yes?

And a big thank you to Dave, who challenged me to meet my fear. :)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Mouth Watering

What bliss. Laying by candlelight, savouring these small, ruby gems - slippery sweet and with that small burst of tartness. Stained fingers be damned... I stirred them and savoured them, and... yes, I bought another for tomorrow night. A burst of sunshine to curl my tongue on a bitterly cold night.

"Like Movies?"

I do.

It was a good holiday for movies. In no particular order, here are my thoughts.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

"We were meant to lose people. How else would we know how important they are?" Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button

Even with a pile of CGI, I lost myself in this film. It helped that that the audience in the packed theatre seemed as riveted as me. It's so rare these days to not be distracted, so this was a pleasure indeed. The film explores themes of aging, love, and loss. The cast is full of wonderful women: the warm and radiant Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin's foster mother, Julia Ormond, and Food, Film, Fiction faves Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. We're spoiled for good actors when you have someone like Blanchett, and you know she'll be radiant, fascinating, and own the screen every second she's on it. Tilda Swinton has some sort of unearthly presence, with her pale face, her dark, seemingly lashless eyes, and that expression that sits between fear and ferocity. I'll watch her in anything. The rest of the cast, the cinematography, the editing, the music is superb... I loved all of it! This gets 10 dark chocolate truffles out of 10.

The Deep End (2001)

"Like movies?" Goran Visnjic as Alek Spera

I saw this when it first came out in the cinema and I watched it again this week, on dvd loan from my friend B. Tilda Swinton plays a mother, living on the shores of Lake Tahoe, with her growing children and a fragile father-in-law, while her husband - in the US navy - sails the north Atlantic. A tragedy occurs, and in one of those fatal movie moments, Swinton's character makes a decision that reverberates like the splash circles in a lake, after a body has been dropped into it. Goran Visnjic is handsome and deadly and I won't say anything more, because this is a good thriller, and - damn - they're hard to find. But... I had no idea that Lake Tahoe or Visnjic, from tv's ER (never watched it) were so easy on the eyes. 7 truffles!

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

"You could have told me how lonely you were. You never trusted me to help you. I'm not saying I was so fucking fabulous, but I was here." Bill Nighy as Richard Hart

A wonderful cast takes on a Patrick Marber script to devastating ends. Judi Dench is a close-to-retirement teacher, who becomes obsessed with Cate Blanchett, a new teacher in the same school who is all light on the surface, but has a challenging home life that strains her marriage to Bill Nighy, her former professor. She makes a choice that makes her painfully vulnerable to Judi Dench, who uses this to assuage her own bitter loneliness. Oh boy, it's intense. 9 truffles!

Gran Torino (2008)

"Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have messed with? That's me." Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski

I wasn't sure what to think as the movie started. It took me a while to start laughing, and to realize it was okay to do so. This is part comedy, part tragedy, not seamless and ultimately schizophrenic. Clint Eastwood plays a retired, recently widowed, bitter old man, whose general intolerance for all human beings is deeply rooted in his dreadful experiences as a soldier in Korea. He treats his family like idiots (some members are deserving) and all his neighbours are painted with a racist brush, using terms and words that flow flawlessly from his puckered angry mouth, his eyes almost obliterated by his glowering brow. A happy encounter with a lovely young neighbour, Ahney Her as Sue - who gives as good as she gets - melts him slightly. This small fissure in his hateful ways wakes him to look out for his neighbours, to devastating ends. If you like Clint Eastwood (I love him!) you will probably want to see it. 5 truffles

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

"Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic." Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio

Woody Allen's latest was a delicious romp through the beautiful parts of Barcelona with a gorgeous cast and some clever comments on life and what we make of it, art and how we express it, and love and how we fulfill it. Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall (daughter of British director Peter Hall and American opera singer Maria Ewing) are two American women travelling for a summer to Barcelona. Hall is engaged to a nice, preppy fellow, and it is not long before she is questioning her safe decision to pursue a life she dreamed of for herself once, but perhaps no longer. Johansson is a free spirit, neurotically wed to the idea that love is about suffering and passion is about pain. Throw Javier (damn, what a profile) Bardem, playing an artist, into the mix, with his low, Spanish accent and limp, linen shirts, and you have a good film! Hall has the Woody Allen leading lady hand flaps, stammers, mutterings and unfinished thoughts down pat. Johansson is radiant and pouty. Penelope Cruz is hysterical and beautiful as Bardem's former wife, also an artist. Bardem holds his own against all the female beauty. Damn, he's gorgous. 9 truffles!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Grandmother, Uncle Belvedere, you've made me the happiest juvenile delinquent in Baltimore! And guess what? I met a girl!"

Johnny Depp as Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker in Cry-Baby (1990)

Oh Boy

I rarely go into greeting card stores, preferring instead to use a selection I keep on hand of interesting art cards, etc. But yesterday, on my way to meet a friend for a movie, I passed one and - today being my dad's birthday - I thought I'd get something more birthday oriented... oh, plus they were having a ridiculously wonderful sale on dark chocolate Lindt Lindor balls. Heh heh.

Well, there certainly is a lot of crap for sale out there. I stood at the "Birthday - Dad" section for a while, in full scoff mode. What mawkish sentiment! What hopeless drivel!! My dad doesn't sail or golf, so that ruled out 95% of the cards. I considered the irony of a card featuring animal depictions of dads and daughters (hey Pop - this species doesn't eat its young either!). Then I ruled out the fuzzy photographs and autumnal oil paintings (hello, it's January 4!). Then I saw one that bore just a sweet photograph of a fairly generic little girl. I opened it up and started reading the sentiment, my lip already curling in disdain at the word "princess".

Because I had a dad like you,
I always knew that princesses
didn't have to be all dresses and bows.

I knew,

because no matter how tousled my hair
or how muddy my shoes,
a princess is what you made me feel like...
And that's how it still feels
being your daughter.

... then... Reader, I teared up! Reader, I bought that card!

I've never felt like a princess, although I've always wanted a tiara. As a kid my socks were always falling down and I had bits of twigs and leaves and lint in my hair and my hair bows always fell out. It's been a downhill decline since then. But my dad loves me anyway and I love him.

Happy Birthday Pop!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Son of No-Knead Bread

It's been a while since I made Michael Smith's delicious recipe for no-knead bread. But yesterday I put some bread to rise. Today it was baked. Yum! The following is his recipe, my comments in italics and brackets. This takes virtually none of your time. Maybe... five minutes tops?

For 1 normal loaf:
2 cups of all-purpose or bread flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1/2 cup of any multi-grain mix (I used ground flax meal)
1/4 teaspoon of dry yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons of salt
1 5/8 cups of warm water

1. Whisk the dry ingredients together thoroughly. Add the water and stir until a wet dough forms. Continue stirring until the dough incorporates all the loose flour in the bowl, about 60 seconds in total.
2. Cover the bowl with a towel and rest in a warm place for 12 to 18 hours. It will double in size, bubble and long gluten strands will form. (I covered it in plastic wrap)
3. Knock the dough down, oil it slightly and form it into a baking pan. (I covered it in plastic wrap)
4. Rest the dough a second time. In 2 to 3 hours it will rise again and double in size once more.
5. Bake 45 minutes in a preheated 425 degree oven.

The collected ingredients:

The mixed dough before rising :

After 18 hours, it's risen to at least twice its size. I was about to punch it down:

The dough is left to re-rise in the loaf pan:

The baked loaf:

Yum yum:

Happy New Year to you all!

(My new year's resolve to achieve 100% of my weight-loss goal got off to a rocky start with a breakfast of Italian cookies, cold pizza - yum - and a few sips of flat champagne. Felt good... damn good.)

25.34%... and counting

Blimey. A surprise and a relief. Heh heh, onwards and upwards, er, I mean downwards.