Saturday, December 27, 2008

Val Lewton - The Seventh Victim

Jacqueline's noose in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
Just Remember - Death is Not the End!

This is part one in a series of articles relating to Val Lewton and the mark he left upon the horror genre. In this series I will concentrate on Lewton as the auteur of the films he produced: the arguments for this are perfectly compelling and generally accepted . . . I will also assume that you have seen the films in question; otherwise, there will be spoilers.

After Orson Welles had nearly bankrupted RKO with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons the studio was forced to turn to other venues for capital. Universal had made money hand-over-fist with their unique brand of horror: RKO decided that they could do the same. To that end they brought Val Lewton on board from MGM (where he'd worked for David O. Selznick), assigning him to the B-horror segment. As head of this unit, Lewton had three mandates. All films had to be under 75 minutes, cost less than $150k, and all film titles would be assigned. Universal had just released The Wolf Man with great returns, so RKO demanded Lewton's first film: Cat People. You can see what their plan was.

Lewton, however, did not exactly comply, instead producing the kind of atmospheric, subtle films that Jonathan Rosenbaum argues create, and constitute, an entire branch of the horror genre. I will touch more on this subject later, but for now let me say that on their surface all Lewton horror films seem a reaction to the Universal Pictures standard of horror and also to Orson Welles. There were two other mandates that modulated Lewton's primary three: RKO's post-Welles' motto of "showmanship before genius" and Lewton's own rule of "no horror heaped on horror." Universal had made it a point to create world's wholly separate from our own where horrific creatures like the wolf man existed realistically by fact of his world's own alien horror. These films were deeply popular with the WWII crowd because they allowed an escapist pleasure from the terror of day-to-day life, but they could never truly create horror because their world was so detatched. Conversely, Lewton spent most of his movies creating realistic worlds where, it's true, some people could maybe turn into cats, become zombies, or return from the dead. This model is certainly a departure from Universal's and met with good effect in the box office. It's this grounding, also, that makes the films equal reactions to Welles - simple movies made on simple, leftover sets, with little departure or granduer. It was because of Welles that Lewton had to fight for every penny he got to make these films, and even at times artistic control, which certainly didn't help matters.

The Seventh Victim, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson, was released in 1943 by RKO Radio Pictures. It is the fourth film Lewton made with RKO and the greatest departure from the "reality with a twist of the supernatural" mode which had made Lewton's first films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) box office hits. It is also, I think, Lewton's greatest film, although flawed. His later films come together more successfully in terms of fit and finish, but this, I think, is where we come closest to seeing a true artistic attempt.

In The Seventh Victim, Lewton creates a wholly insular world wherein there is no solace, no light. Unlike his other works, he approached this film with a clear message: "Death is good." And then proceeded to seep the goodness out of all life in reaction to this. The idea of familial love is lost: Mary's love for Jacqueline (accentuated by a kind of hesitant indifference) amounts to an interest in where she might be, Jacqueline's love for Mary is lost in her own ambivalence, the Palladist's love for Jacqueline lost in her betrayal. Romantic love is lost: Ward's love for Jacqueline lost to his love for Mary, Hoag's love lost to insanity . . . New York is an empty place totally void of anything but shadow produced by unseen light. God is a facet of Dr. Judd's intellect, brought forth only in defense. Jean Brooks' Jacqueline is nearly as alive at the end of the film as she is during it, her suicide an escape from nothingness to nothingness.

Shadows in the alley of The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh BeaumontShadows In The Alley

There are many precursors to film noir here, most from Fritz Lang's work - and they inform the aforementioned sense of atmosphere in a way familiar to fans of German cinema. The subtle horror that the film attempts comes from the complete meaningless of life within it and the equally meaningless horror of death.

A friend pointed out that the oddness of the film's beginning is not well maintained throughout, and I agree. The beginning of the film sets a breathless pace, with a near-instant change of location, the introduction of a whole cast of characters with intricate, preformed relationships to themselves but not to the protagonist (who we cling to because we have no one else), and a vaguely sinister overtone. But from the time where Jacqueline is reunited with Mary we gain a sense of normalcy that even the Palladists cannot overcome. If Jacqueline succombs to them and drinks the poison we know that there will be a reaction: Mary will find out, she will know why, as will Dr. Judd and Ward. There will be interactions, formulaic reactions - possibly prosecution, retribution, resignation. The materialization of Jacqueline from the shadows provides a point from which the random, colorless chaos of the world can be ordered. That order, and those reactions, create meaning to both Jacqueline's life and death. It will still be bleak, but the terror is now steeped in a familiar tone with familiar outcomes. Where is the terror in the familiar? That, I fear, is far beyond Val Lewton's grip.

Jacqueline contemplating her forced suicide by poison in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
Jacqueline Facing Death

Fritz Lang's Destiny - twenty-two years this film's senior - has at its heart the selfsame message, as would Bergman's The Seventh Seal fourteen years later: Death is inescapable and indeed to be welcomed as a relief to the awful strife of this world. Destiny does not attempt to show the supposed-horror of death in a nihilistic world - a virtually unattainable goal. Rather, it works to show that the bittersweet pain of the world is ended in death, replaced by a utopian beauty where love is forged anew in green pastures. God in this film, rather than a cold intellectual force, shows that "love is strong as death." Conversely, The Seventh Seal creates Death itself as a facet of life, the terrifying part of the-God-within with whom we carry on a constant monologue, praying for a response to our call. That response is the melancholy, everyday beauty of our own lives that prods us ever gently back to the Earth at the same time that it calls us home to Him. "Death is good" by contrast becomes a childish mantra by a man with a vision, but without the words to speak it.

(. . . did I mention speaking the vision? That aforementioned friend also mentioned the film's lack of filmic quality - that it was, at times, merely filmed theater, hardly aware of its transient abilities. One rare exception is the shower scene where Mary is confronted by the unknown quantity of the satanist. This scene has the true potential for horror, and it seems hardly possible that Alfred Hitchcock had not seen it before creating his own in Psycho.)

A precursor to Hitchcock's shower scene in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
The World Beyond the Veil

Everybody's Waiting for the Man with the Bag . . .

I'll catch you with my death bag.  You may think I've gone insane.  But I promise - I will kill again.. . . Christmas is here again!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


This is a story of the grocery business, and I apologize for that. But the grocery business does consume a lot of my time, and the things with which I am preoccupied outside of it certainly apply inside of it as well.

A friend of mine, we‘ll call him Skip, just celebrated his 83rd birthday (the exact same day on which I celebrated my 27th) and - partly out of celebration, partly out of other commitments - his daughter had taken him to Philadelphia to spend the day with her. Skip spent a large part of his life in Philadelphia as a grocery store manager and later as a corporate officer for the same grocery chain. Going back, it seems, evoked a few memories from him that he wanted to share, and I’ve made it a point to always share his memories with him. It was 1968. Skip was the director of merchandising for his company, which is not a small rung on the ladder by any means. He was in charge of setting profit margins for merchandise, setting sale prices, and establishing schematics for store layout. Additionally, he oversaw the pool of buyers who, as their title suggests, buy everything that comes into the warehouse, working out the myriad deals that are intrinsic in that system. Even in 1968 this was a problem: corporations vying for top market position even in small companies like Skip’s were already beginning to slip money into the coffers of those in charge to make sure that their product was top dog. Once there, it becomes difficult for another product to take over. The public buys what they are told to, generally, and it’s very difficult to break that cycle. Make the kid’s parents buy it, lock them in, and the kids will never trust another brand. Their kids won’t even know that another brand is possible.

Skip first encountered this problem when he decided to reset the canned soup sections in his stores. At the time he was selling Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, Tomato, and Vegetable Beef soups at cost everyday. These soups, even today, represent the core of the condensed soup business (a very large and growing category - in 2005 Campbell‘s had revenue approaching $8bn) and a store with everyday low prices on these is sure to net customers en masse. Selling at costs, of course, means losing money, because the cost of each item must also bear the cost to transport it, the cost of labor to warehouse it - and any applicable inventory taxes involved -, and the cost of labor to stock it. The industry calls these items loss leaders - items for which the company is willing to lose money in order to get people into the store. The idea of a loss leader is to get as much exposure for the item as possible while selling as few as possible, thus maximizing profits. Skip, in turn, placed his loss leading Campbell’s cans on the bottom shelf of the set, and the other Campbell’s soups on either side. In the middle he placed the sundry soups, including broths and stocks. Traditional supermarket logic tells us that the middle area - anything from shelf three up - is where customer’s eyes are. Therefore items which do not need help selling are placed on the bottom, because customers are looking for them anyway. In the middle are placed items which do not already have a dedicated following (in cereal, for instance, you will always find large family sized boxes of Cheerios on the bottom shelf, children’s cereals in the middle, and adult cereals on top. Children’s cereals are the only part of the category which consistently change, in order to reflect the newest fad cartoons, movies, etc.). The problem which Skip encountered with this fairly sensible product alignment came from his company’s VP, who had been told that the arrangement could not continue by the president of Campbell’s soup. Attempts to explain the logic behind his choices fell on deaf ears. Nevertheless, and somewhat to the company’s credit, Skip’s new soup schematic was implemented in all of his stores and was a success, but his reputation with that VP had been tarnished.

This small victory was put to the test in a later incident, where the company’s president decided that Crest toothpaste should be placed on sale for 39c. Skip again refused, citing that he could place Close Up toothpaste on sale for the same price with a greater profit margin. The problem with this response is that Crest (incidentally the first toothpaste to include fluoride) is, and was, owned by the multinational juggernaut Proctor and Gamble while Close Up is made by Church and Dwight - even then a much smaller company. Skip’s plan to place Close Up toothpaste on sale was implemented against the president’s wishes, and the resulting row nearly placed Skip on the street. Today he credits these two events as the main reasons why he was unable to achieve a senior executive position within the company - and all because he made it more money than if he had followed the alternative plan.

There are benign reasons for a CEO wanting to place one product on sale over another, but the most obvious reason for this is that there were kickbacks in place about which Skip was not aware. Money talks. Even a few years ago it was common practice for vendors to give grocery managers gifts in exchange for better display spaces, increased shelf space, etc. Companies, purportedly realizing that this created an unfair advantage, have broadly banned this practice. Instead, the corporate offices of those vendors now send huge checks to the company owners in order to get better displays. These kickbacks, which pad the bottom line quite nicely, have resulted in a very narrow field of products (take a look at the detergent or shampoo aisle of your local market and see how many different companies are represented there. For most, non-specialty, markets the answer will be no more than 3 or 4 for both aisles combined) which excludes smaller competition offhand. More importantly, they have resulted in industry standard wages that are only marginally above minimum wage for most positions, generally awful benefits (or, in the case of some well known companies, hardly any benefits at all), and a general cronyism on executive row where the wage divide becomes quite evident.

Of course, these are moderate players in moderate examples from a moderately regulated government. History provides us with better, more telling examples, of what else can happen when that flow of corporate money catches the eye of the right person. In the very same decade that Skip fought for his Close Up sale, the Ford Motor Company had established a prison camp in its Argentina factory, where the military tortured and murdered members of the Union who had forced the company into providing the workers such luxuries as an hour lunch. They were declared enemies of the state.

As for Skip, the moral of his story, as he enunciated it, was to not be smarter than the boss. I told him that I felt the greater imperative was to know who the boss was. He laughed at that and agreed. I felt horrible for him. He came from an era that had told him that he had only to don a suit, go to business school, and he would be initiated into the elite. There was a certain sense of infallibility and empire to his generation, but now he sees - as should we all - that the rulers of the empire only ever were a select, predestined few.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Come from Great Darkness and Deep Peace

"Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember - the oligarchy is also controlled, by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It's the structure we have to change. This is what I have come to denounce . . . I believe that truth and justice will eventually triumph. It will take generations. If I am to die in this fight, then so be it. But one day we will triumph. In the meantime, I know who the enemy is, and the enemy knows who I am, too."

-- Sergio Tomasella

Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday

Wal-Mart Worker Dies in Rush

While doing my own Black Friday shopping (just to keep this fair), I stumbled upon an discussion on this article. Naturally the purpose of this discussion was to establish blame, and its placement was fairly evenly split between those who blamed corporations for inspiring this level of rabid consumerism and those who blamed the crowd for losing control.

What do you think?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In - Oskar and Eli the 12 year old vampireAllow me to rescind, fleetingly, my previous disappointment with the horror genre. Let The Right One In is an exceedingly rare and beautiful example and it earns its place in the pantheon of great horror films. I don’t want to say that it’s a film obsessed with things, because in truth it’s not. It’s subtle. But it is a film about our obsessions or, at least, a film which touches on mine.

There are things about childhood that we never can manage to leave behind: our first kiss, our first love, the teasing, scorning words of our schoolmates. For some these things provide comfort and for some a nauseous looking back. For myself, I have yet to think on my first love without regret and sorrow: I have yet to be truly free of it. The pain I felt at its end, of course, is not nearly so great and has been replaced by a kind of nostalgic sadness, because age has conspired to alter me. But it is still there, and I can imagine what the outcome might have been had I never been able to move on from that awful age of transition where my first love had its inception. Therein lies the horror of this movie: a 12 year old girl vampire who is neither a girl nor 12 years old - who can never grow old and never leave the dismay of that age, who can never escape the memory of that time, who can never transcend her appalling hunger and its violence - and a 12 year old boy who is taunted viciously by his schoolmates, who cannot escape them, is impotent against them and their own violence. Natural cycles. Let The Right One In is a movie about natural cycles. The first, blushing hint of love in the playground. The shy awkwardness of its approach. Its hesitant acceptance and the subsequent uncertainty. The discovery of our true natures. The vampirism of the female. Consummation. Symbiosis. All steeped in the horrible flesh tones of memory.

I don’t want to ruin a film which is still in theaters. Go. See it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wolf Tracks

The Northern News is a small newspaper with circulation in Hampstead, Manchester, Lineboro, and Upperco. I have never seen it before now and frankly hope to not see it again; although, it is apparently mailed to my house regularly.

I mention it today because of an editorial in the November 6th edition (Vol. 1, No. 13), which I will quote here in its entirety owing to the extremely limited circulation of the paper and my intent to critique the whole of the article. It is reprinted with all its myriad grammatical errors and missteps.

Michelle Obama as First Lady is My Last Choice

Wolf Tracks
By Hoby Wolf

“As I write this I have no idea about who will win the election for President of the United States. I know what the polls say is a projected winner, I also know what my heart and hopes tell me.

From the comments I receive on this column I know I’m not exactly alone in my prayers.

Frankly, when I heard Michelle Obama make that speech after her husband won the Iowa primary election that, ‘for the first time in my life I’m proud of my country.’ Then and there I figured if Sen. Barack Obama was dumb enough to pick a wife, so unfeeling to make that statement, he wasn’t smart enough to run for this country.

My first thought was she must have slept through every history class. Evidently she thinks those few patriots that stood fast against a British onslaught at Bunker Hill were chicken livers. The fact that Mrs. Obama isn’t an agriculture worker today is the result of men who lived and died that would make anyone proud of America.

Guess I’m not the only one she turned off in a big way. If you noted while Cindy McCain was at her husband’s side during his speeches, the mean spirited Obama was not visible with her husband.

If Obama wins and they have a television picture of her in the White House, my advice is that you not be down wind of me, for surely I will “frow-up” on the spot!

My hope is that the polls of prospective voters are wrong. All of the people who have skin that is not black have been pushed in such a defense role that we no longer can say what we believe.

Over the years I have worked with some very talented African-Americans There was ‘Mr. Henry’ who showed “city folks” how to run the Fairbank Dairy in Eldersburg. Then there was Stirling Collins, who took the time to show me that any block or brick that was even a fraction of an inch below the line level had to be reset.

That was a masonry lesson, but also a life lesson in demanding that keeping a beginning standard is what made your end results worth having.

Dave Ward will always be a fond memory. He won a Julliard music scholarship and was furious when later scholarships were awarded on the basis of color, because as he put it, “it makes my winning less valuable.”

My closing thought is just this question. Why didn’t Bill Cosby have presidential ambitions? He certainly would have had my vote. If your kids are following what he advocates, your family is a winner right now.”

. . .

Mr. Wolf, I will agree with you on one point in this article: Michelle Obama’s comment that “for the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country” was a stupid thing to say. However, it was only stupid because she chose to say it at a time when her husband was so politically vulnerable. Otherwise, I’m quite fine with it, really, and even endorse it. Up until Election Day of this year I can’t myself think of a time in my adult life when I was proud of my country, and even now I can’t be sure that I wasn’t just caught up in the emotion of Obama's win. That’s right. I am not proud of America, Mr. Wolf. But then, I did notice in your article that even you have trouble finding relevant things about which to be proud. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783. Slavery was abolished in 1865. These are the most recent examples of American heroism and greatness that you could muster. If they occurred in your adult lifetime then I can understand your pride in America, if not exactly how you wrote your editorial.

Of course, slavery was abolished in the other British colonies in 1834, and the French abolished it in 1848. The Jews at Masada chose to die rather than live under Roman rule in 73CE. Should Michelle Obama pay homage to them, too? What America did was hardly without precedent: what America became was. There is something to be proud of there, and I am. I firmly believe that our country once was the greatest nation ever to stand on this Earth. But sadly our shared belief in yesterday is not enough to save today.

What we are is not what we once were, and it is a dangerous folly to lull yourself into the belief that because America once was great it will ever be. We have allowed our military to enter into a union with our industry that neuters the will of the American people. We have allowed our greed for resources to turn us into a colonizing force far more sinister than the one we shook off. We have allowed our media to be overtaken by corporations and in doing so dominated the will of our free press. We overthrow sovereign nations in the name of those businesses. We rob our own people blind in their name. If you are proud of those things, Mr. Wolf, then more power to you. As Thomas Mann says below, there is always a feeling of inherent adoration for one’s country and a belief that it is somehow exempt from the history of the world. But truth be told America is not special, America is not great, and America can fail. What once was worthy of pride in this country is gone yet remains the same thing that could be worthy of pride in it today: its people. However, so long as they are allowed to believe that America remains the City of God and that wearing a flag upon their lapel marks them as an initiate into that greatness, America will be doomed to its fate.

Our founding fathers believed that government was “for the people and by the people” not that the state was a sovereignty onto itself, its authority preceding that of the individual. Yet here we are in a country where our current President was never elected and who, in his autocratic wisdom, tells us we must give our money to the industry or we will surely perish. Somehow, this is not America.

And as much as I would love to end this commentary here, you sadly chose to extend yours beyond the reach of your title. You were irate that Michelle Obama had the audacity to not show unerring and sorely deserved pride in her country and felt the need to write an editorial about your frustration that she will likely end up as the First Lady. Your editorial was published. The newspaper it was published in will go out to over 10,000 homes (and a few hundred more now that it’s online).

. . . And yet you chose to end your piece with a rant on how “all of the people who have skin that is not black have been pushed in such a defense role that we no longer can say what we believe.”

Didn’t you just say, in your first 246 ineffectual words, what you believe? And do you really speak for “all of the people who have skin that is not black”? Only 11% of America is black - so 89% of the American population - including all those other weird people who ain’t white or black - were repressed by Barack Obama’s candidacy? If that’s the case, then we need to open up a complaint with the UN and implore them to have the election redone with foreign non-blacks presiding over the polling stations to ensure that the great black conspiracy (which somehow mustered 7.2 million votes more than the great white conspiracy, no doubt thanks to the liberal media) cannot prevail!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The cities of Europe have burned before, and they may yet burn again.

". . . I am not free from a tendency to see in this fate some special, unparalleled tragedy, although I know that other peoples have had to bear the burden of wishing the defeat of their nation for its own good and for the sake of a shared future."

Thomas Mann

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Horror Genre

Chartered by the BFI in conjunction with the BBC's award-winning Spinechillers radio series, The Horror Genre by Paul Wells purports itself as a primer for those beginning film studies and who are interested in the horror film specifically. This is problematic from the start: Film is rarely taken seriously enough and the horror genre is rarely taken seriously - add to this the fact that academic film studies are rarely more than a soft option for those looking to become grips in Hollywood and the study of horror films becomes downright laughable. This book is no exception.

Like most film study I've read, The Horror Genre looks at film through the same lens as literature, breaking it down into the same generic movements and assuming the same generic influences. It assumes that horror films are social documents, merely reflecting the values of their time. The book makes little mention of the obvious stars of the show. In fact, it spends as much time on the genre's darling, Psycho, as it does on Batman Returns - a movie wholly outside the genre. It is content to lay down a timeline, to delineate the major themes outside of film during those times, and to list the films which were made inside those times. It suggests two major movements in horror - 1919-1960 ("Consensus and Constraint") and 1960-2000 ("Chaos and Collapse") and touches briefly on the major studio movements, which are key to understanding the evolution of horror. The first thirty-three pages are wasted on sophomoric name-dropping and attempts to legitimize the very idea of horror-study by tying it to such concepts as Marxism, Darwinism, and Symbolism and such visionaries as Nietzsche and Bataille. Those pages are practically unreadable. The remaining book is a breathless exhibition as the author stumbles to provide as many movie titles into his forcedly-fluid timeline as possible. I feel sorry for the undergraduate whose course is assembled around this sorry state of affairs.

But there is something there. Something to study and discuss in the horror film that transcends the baseness of social comment and enters into the primeval world of symbols and archetypes - of God and art. There is something that speaks to meaning inside all of us, and there are horror films which are capable of disturbing, terrifying, and opening up our eyes to the very things which keep us from communicating with each other, from living with one another.

I remember in school when we first learned about the literary device of conflict and how it was generally broken down into simple dualities - man vs. nature, man vs. God, man vs. man, man vs. himself. When I first saw A Picnic at Hanging Rock - one of the best horror films ever made, in my estimation - I was shocked by the realization that none of these dualities were real. They were simple extensions of the one true conflict, man vs. the other. There is no way in Picnic to define what happened on the rock, who the enemy was, if there was one. There is little proof there, even, that we are who we are. There are vague impressions of what it is to be human, the soft-fleeting juxtaform of memory, but when the limits of that experience are reached there is terror in the face of the barrier.

Last night a friend told me that he awoke recently to find a book, which he'd left on his bed, levitating. This terrified him, because he knew that it was impossible. And that is what terror is: to be confronted with something against which your knowledge of the world can provide no traction. In that definition, there is so much available for the genre to play with, but I must confess myself disappointed with both it and the study of it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Election '08

In a highly scientific poll of people too afraid of human contact to order pizza over the telephone, Domino's Pizza has discovered that Obama will win by a landslide - even taking Texas, reliably-red Indiana, and John McCain's own state - Arizona.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Brake For Boiled Peanuts

I grew up eating boiled peanuts. My mother spent a brief period in Florida before I was born, which is where I think she discovered the little jewels and smuggled them up to the cutting edge of the Mason-Dixon line. Rutters mini-marts carried them up until I was in middle school but after they stopped the boiled peanut made a sad exit from my life for many years.

In 2004 Anna took a trip to visit her daughter in Georgia and brought back boiled peanuts at my request. They were heavenly - everything I remembered. I simply had to have more, but, while managing a grocery store gives me transcendent food-sourcing abilities, it wasn’t until Wegmans moved into Maryland that a grocery store here offered them - not even the Carolina-based Food Lion. Millbrook, Weis’ then-gourmet vendor, could not source them, and our produce buyers flat-out refused to purchase in-shell raw peanuts. So I finally turned to the internet for help.

It’s odd that I took so long to look to the internet for boiled peanuts. I made my first webpage in 1995 and I bought my first domain in 1996. I was on the #html channel on DALnet back before Michelle from married Don from I am so old school. But I freak out when I can’t find cruelty-free shampoo within a twenty minute drive, and I go without boiled peanuts for years when the local grocer can’t get them. Such is life.

Naturally my search for boiled peanuts led me to where I discovered the Lee Bros, who make their living selling the South to disenfranchised southerners and - as their cookbook title suggests - “would-be” southerners. Their website is a plethora of southern foods, from grits to pickled peaches, and I was absolutely amazed by it. I ended up buying my boiled peanuts elsewhere, because the Lees sell theirs frozen which makes shipping expensive, but I vowed to return.

It wasn’t until I saw Anthony Bourdain’s Charleston, SC episode of No Reservations - which featured the Lees heavily - that I actually did return and purchased their cookbook. Since then I have made the following recipes from it:

  • Lee Bros. Sweet Tea
How do you get away with a recipe for sweet tea? Mix 150 parts sugar to 1 part tea. Done. But their recipe uses a simple syrup versus plain sugar, which I find to be an elegant solution.
  • Mint Simple Syrup
My grandmother had huge patches of mint at her house and we all grew up on mint tea. The smell of it steeping in the summer kitchen is one of my favorite memories of childhood. I miss my grandmother so, so much and the first taste of mint-infused sweet tea using the recipe in this book almost made me cry. I’ve tried a few variations on this, including raspberry and mango syrups, but I really do prefer the mint. The coolest thing is this: make a pitcher of regular tea, unsweetened, and keep a couple jars of variously flavored syrups handy. Mint tea, sweet tea, mango tea - they’re all just a tablespoon away.
  • Edamame
Ok, so I made this before I bought the cookbook - but how savvy of those crafty Southerners to be hip to edamame. Heck, even my MS Word isn’t in-the-know.
  • Coleslaw
A decent recipe that does away with blanching the cabbage, resulting in a nice peppery finish. The second time around I opted for a straight-up dill relish instead of the “not too sweet” sweet relish the recipe requests. It makes a nice difference.
  • Matt’s Honey-Glazed Field Peas
I had to ask my Goya rep to bring in a case of cow peas especially for me to make this recipe. The two bags I bought - back on the fourth of July - remain the only two we’ve sold. I replaced the country ham in this recipe with a vegetarian ham I bought at Roots Market and an absolutely glittering Tupelo honey from Wegmans. The result was a smoky, rich baked bean that was so much better than any baked bean I’ve ever had. But, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind using a larger bean next time around.
  • Shrimp Burgers (for my dad on Father’s Day)
A note for vegetarians trying to make shrimp for their father: if the recipe calls for you to steam the shrimp until pink, don’t start off with pink Gulf shrimp. I paired these up with the aforementioned coleslaw for Dad, who in his typically detached, Eeyore-esque way said “Thanks.”
  • Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie
This pie is incredible. The Lee Bros said they created the recipe as a reaction to the typically leaden Sweet Potato pie and in that light this is a revelation. It easily trumps even the best of pumpkin pies. The crust is great, although it calls for lard, so I had to substitute shortening. I want to try exchanging the sweet potato for pumpkin.
  • Sorghum Pecan Pie
The sorghum syrup which binds this pie together has a nice hearty tang to it that is dimly reminiscent of tomatoes. It wasn’t the smash hit that the Sweet Potato pie was because of that, I think. Today’s Pecan Pie is a high fructose corn syrup monstrosity that overwhelms the earthy flavor of the nuts with its sweetness, which provides nothing else in terms of taste.
  • Red Velvet Cake
I was so excited about these. Big, fluffy red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing, all from scratch. Despite growing up with my Depression-era Grandmother, who had an affinity for homemade icings, I had never had a homemade cake before. I expected it to be superior to box cakes in all ways: lighter, sweeter, more tender. The result required a little introspection, because I hated it at first. The cake was dry and leaden, the superfluity of red food coloring felt wrong - like that green chocolate syrup Hershey’s came out with during the release of The Hulk. The Lee Bros recipe uses the zest from two oranges and cocoa powder which results in a very orangey sort of chocolate. In the future I am considering making the chocolate one of the liquid ingredients and reducing the orange zest.
  • Bird-head Buttermilk Biscuits
Underwhelming. I added 1/3c. Extra sharp cheddar cheese to the recipe which had the effect of cancelling the buttermilk’s tang while not imparting any cheese flavor whatsoever. The worst of both worlds!

In addition to great recipes The Lee Bros cookbook is a treasure chest of stories from the brothers’ past which are very enjoyable. I recommend it wholeheartedly. I plan on buying the “Charleston Receipts” cookbook from their website as well, which will hopefully be a deeper dive into Appalachia. Until then, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners is one of my favorite cookbooks.

Monday, October 13, 2008

We Never Make Mistakes

I own virtually everything Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ever wrote.

His books have decidedly catchy names like We Never Make Mistakes and Warning to the West that draw me to them at used (and not so used) bookstores and opening phrases and paragraphs that make them go back to the bookshelf.

“Hello. Is this the dispatcher?”
“Who is this? Dyachichin?”
“Don’t ‘well’ me - I said, are you Dyachichin?”
“Drive the tank car from track seven to three. Yes, I’m Dyachichin.”
“This is the Army Commandant’s aide, Lieutenant Zotov, speaking! Listen, what’re you doing up there? Why haven’t you dispatched the echelon to Lipetsk before this? Number 67 - uh - what’s the last number, Valya?”

. . .

I’ve never read him. Until now.

We Never Make Mistakes consists of two short stories, brought together for the English speaking world in 1963 by the University of South Carolina and translated by Paul W. Blackstock. It’s the only translation you’ll find, so far as I can tell, and it’s passable with minor exceptions. There are definite issues with reading Russian that footnotes could probably help. For instance, the main character in An Incident at Krechetovka Station is named Lieutenant Vasya Zotov, but he is consistently referred to as Vasili Vasilitch. While I’m not entirely sure why, it seems that it must be some sort of diminutive or nickname, but he’s referred to as this by his civilian counterparts who also refer to him as Sir. Furthermore, the translator assumes that such abbreviations as NKVD will be familiar to the reader while making a similar assumption that NKPS will not be. Assuming this in 1963 was probably not a horrible idea, and maybe I should be more aware of my surroundings when jumping into prison camp literature; however, my edition was re-released in 2003 and is a re-release of a 1996 edition: the NKVD, or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, was renamed the MVD in 1946. Given that the average high school student no longer knows what the sickle and hammer stand for, a footnote seems in order. My edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls, by comparison, had so many footnotes that I felt as if I were reading Joyce.

The two shorts stories in We Never Make Mistakes are An Incident at Krechetovka Station and Matryona’s House. The second is considerably better than the first - so for now I’ll concentrate on the first.

An Incident… deals with the aforementioned Lt. Zotov and his workaday life at the Krechetovka train station during WWII. Zotov is a very young man, desperately patriotic, who longs to be on the front lines, but who is reduced to receiving coded messages and arranging for train departures and arrivals. He does not understand the things that are happening in his country: there have been conflicting reports as to where the front lies and his job entitles him to information that conflicts these reports even more. The Germans are winning. They will take Moscow. His country will fall. But here he sits, trying to keep starving peasant’s from stealing sacks of flour from the trains. The world has yet to stop, despite the fact that it is crumbling.

The beginning of the story is nearly a landscape with very little in the way of plot or development, and when the story actually begins it does so with a haphazard pace that catches up with itself all-too-quickly. I truly enjoyed the images that the beginning imparted and you get a very definite sense of Solzhenitsyn’s deep patriotism from them: I could probably have read an entire story of nothing but Zotov going back and forth, sending out trains, pulling his blinds down, and listening in to nearby conversations. Alas, this was not to be. The story had an agenda - a message. Zotov was to portray the idea of Solzhenitsyn’s great struggle between his hatred of communist Russia and his love of his homeland. Zotov cannot deliver this message, though, because you are utterly detached from him. You are meant to feel Zotov’s pain at being kept from the front, at his estrangement from his family, at his loneliness. You are meant to feel the helplessness of his situation and - perhaps - the pointlessness of his plight. But not, in any way, the pointlessness of his life.

The tale is, largely, autobiographical as most of Solzhenitsyn’s works are. As a younger man he never questioned party politics and was, like Zotov, completely content to read Das Kapital. Both men were well educated and sought out enlightenment after their schooling had ended. Both of their lives revolved around numbers. Both men eventually lost their faith in the party: Solzhenitsyn’s dissolving moment being the eight years he spent in the gulag. Yet I’m reminded of Elie Wiesel, who makes absurd amounts of money publicizing his pain and suffering, all in the name of reminding the world about the atrocities that befell him and countless others. BUT. Both Wiesel and Solzhenitsyn survived their atrocities and in considerably more comfort (both then and now) than most of their fellows and both now sit back in comfort (...or death) and reminisce about their experiences, gaining accolades and awards (honorary doctorates, even) and praise left and right. Introspection and a third-person point of view seem almost wrong in the face of such atrocities. And let’s face it: Solzhenitsyn really doesn’t have anything to say about the banality of evil which allows man to sit idly by while gulags exist. He has nothing to say about the evil in all men that makes them long for the suffering of others. He has nothing to say about the good in man that can rise above the worst in God. He has only this to say: Soviet Russia was disinheriting and awful. It brought low an idyllic people. Zotov’s pain and frustration is remote because he has utterly polarized the world into a party that he must love because it comes from Russia and a Russian past which is perfect and yet at odds with its present. This romantic notion of Russia past is so childlike that we can hardly accept the idea that Zotov could come to terms with a struggle between the party and that past. Solzhenitsyn, we can be sure, never did. He blamed the October Revolution on the Jews and continued on adoring the past which they fractured.

Harvard Professor Richard Pipes says this of Solzhenitsyn:

"Solzhenitsyn blamed the evils of Soviet communism on the West. He rightly stressed the European origins of Marxism, but he never asked himself why Marxism in other European countries led not to the gulag but to the welfare state. He reacted with white fury to any suggestion that the roots of Leninism and Stalinism could be found in Russia’s past. His knowledge of Russian history was very superficial and laced with a romantic sentimentalism. While accusing the West of imperialism, he seemed quite unaware of the extraordinary expansion of his own country into regions inhabited by non-Russians. He also denied that Imperial Russia practiced censorship or condemned political prisoners to hard labor, which, of course, was absurd."
Soviet Russia produced some of the strongest artists ever to walk this earth - but I fear that Solzhenitsyn’s fame in the West comes more from his rejection of Soviet Russia during the Cold War than from any actual merit of his own. The best that I can say of him is that he may be historically significant.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

. . . they're mostly made of people.

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
Is there a more cliché way to start a blog than with Yeats?

We have lost our way. . . . I have lost my way. I want it back.

I used to read. I used to write. I used to save up every penny to buy incredibly expensive Criterion DVDs that I would watch over and over and over again, falling asleep to the commentary, writing essays. I miss that. Maybe. Just maybe this will help.

I enjoy film, literature, music, cooking. I plan on writing about all of these things.

Thanks for reading!