Thursday, December 29, 2011

Four Holiday Movies with Dogs

In case anyone is planning a New Year’s film binge, here are a few suggestions:

The Adventures of Tintin
Although this animated feature is a little short on character development, the plot is plenty thick, and the colorful settings are marvelously rendered. The sea battle between flaming vessels is particularly vivid, and the film gets more interesting when our detective-hero and his companion, Captain Haddock, arrive in a storybook North African city to retrieve the model ship that carries the third and final clue to the location of the buried treasure.

Fans of the comic book character have had a good time pointing out all the ways that the movie fails to live up to the superb genius of the original material. Those of us who come into the theater without expectations can sit back and enjoy the ride. For myself, I’m not a big fan of animated movies, in which the plots tend to be sentimental, the expressions generic, and the voices wildly exaggerated. Ratatouille? Finding Nemo? UJggh!@#%!

But I liked Tintin, which mostly looked quite real. I think I might read the book.

Margin Call
Margin Call Takes us inside the offices of a hedge fund on the eve of the market melt-down on 2008. Half of the staff has just been fired, but one of the departing “risk managers” (Stanley Tucci) has crunched enough numbers to see that far worse news lies ahead.

The film takes place during a single late-night panic during which young employees, board members, and honchos arriving in helicopters attempt to make the best of a terrible situation, and “get out” before everything goes south. Sales manager Kevin Spacy seems to have a bit more conscience than some of his colleagues, though his emotional life is largely consumed by the health needs of his dying dog. Several sharks (including top dog Jeremy Irons) are given the opportunity to deliver fairly accurate speeches about the willing collusion between fund managers and their clients.

Never having owned a piece of a hedge fund or visited a brokerage of any kind myself, I couldn’t say how accurate any of this is, but it’s a vivid and thought-provoking film.

The Artist
This black-and-white film has a rich soundtrack and a predictable plot, but it’s a charming vehicle for the stars, who spend a fair amount of time merely grinning at one another.

An actor unknown to me, Jean Dujardin, plays the silent-screen idol George Valentin, and a second new-comer, Bérénice Bejo, is equally winsome as the enthusiastic fan who slowly creeps into his life. Both actors indulge in plenty of the “hamming” that takes the place of talk in silent pictures, but they’re very good at it, and the story itself is awfully sweet.

Young Adult
On the other hand, Young Adult is bittersweet at best. Charlize Theron plays an attractive divorcee who writes young adult novels from her high-rise apartment in Minneapolis and drinks Coke from a 2-liter bottle in her pajamas every morning. She’s pushing forty, though she looks to be twenty-five, and her life is a mess. Receiving an almost random baby-announcement email from her high school boyfriend, she decides to return to her home town and “rescue” him from what she presumes to be a boring, claustrophobic life.

Theron does an excellent job of making herself continually watchable but never likable. At the same time, director Jason Reisman succeeds in fleshing out the limited horizons of small-town life without condescension. Patrick Wilson plays the new father with aplomb—obviously happy with his domestic situation, though also guilelessly concerned to make his unexpected visitor feel at home. Added ballast is provided by Matt Freeholf (Patton Oswalt) who was the victim of a hate crime in high school and now paints model super-heroes and distills whiskey in his garage.
Considered all-in-all, Young Adult is far better than any brief description could convey. I might almost describe it as haunting.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Genius of the Season

So much is contained in a single word—a single letter. Thus, “Celebrating the birth of God” carries a different connotation from “Celebrating the birth of a god.” Maybe the phrase “Celebrating birth” says it all.

My Greek is a little rusty after all these years, but as I recall, the prefix “gen-” carries a range of inference that spans race, kind, line of descent, origin, creation, sexual relations, and reproduction. Just think of the modern equivalents: generation, genius, generator, genuine, and genesis. But we must also include such words as genus, genealogy, and general.

Clearly that simple prefix can take us in two different directions. On the one hand, it calls up a series of concepts having to do with novelty, creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness. One the other hand, it refers to concepts that lump things together into groups on the basis of their type or ancestry. We hold no one in higher esteem than the “genius,” yet reserve our most withering derision for the merely “generic.”

These two aspects of the expression will never be fully reconciled, but it would be a mistake to imagine that they’re altogether opposed to one another. We meet up with both at every family gathering: the idiosyncrasies, the differences between family members that stimulate and nourish us (though they can sometimes annoy us, too) and the veins of affection that run ever-deeper, and constitute the reality (rather than merely the pedigree) of the clan.

Praise be to whoever cooked up a universe replete with affinities, both elective and congenital. May we become ever more generous and genial in our efforts to expand the reach of such ties.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Adventures in Coulibiac Country

A Koulibiac is a loaf of fish, meat, or vegetables baked in a pastry crust. This Russian dish was traditionally made with sturgeon marrow, which is not easy to come by these days. I suspect most recipes today derive from the one that appeared in French cookbooks after Escoffier included the dish in his book.

We recently proposed this dish for a large-scale Christmas gathering on the strength of a dim recollection I had of a remark Craig Clairborne made about it. I could no longer remember what he’d said, but I knew the dish had salmon in it, and I suspected it was complicated to make. I had the distinct recollection that a recipe could be found in a book called The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth which had made its way to the basement decades ago. (I was wrong.)

According the Foodlover’s Companion, “the French adaptation of the Russian original (kulebiaka) consists of a creamy melange on fresh salmon, rice, hard-cooked eggs, mushrooms, shallots and dill enclosed in a hot pastry envelope. The pastry is usually made with brioche dough. Coulibiacs can be large or small but are classically oval in shape. They can be served as a first or a main course." The word is pronounced koo-leeb-yahk, by the way.

Perusing recipes online, we soon learned that there are many variants—though salmon, eggs, and mushrooms appear in most of them. We chose one that sounded especially interesting due to the inclusion of a can of sardines and a complicated sauce made with wine and the water in which the dried mushrooms had been reconstituted. A week before the big event, we made a trial run and found that the sardines were overpowering, the salmon was half raw, the wine sauce was indistinct and hardly worth the effort, and the rice added nothing to the dish.

On the strength of this flop, we moved on to a recipe that called for crepes rather than rice, had a less complicated duxelle of mushrooms, and included leeks rather than spinach. This recipe made use of an herb hollandaise, which seemed like a good idea. We also incorporated a twist we’d found in several other recipes, of searing the salmon fillets on both sides before adding them to the loaf, to insure that when the pasty was cut open following its time in the oven, the fish would be done.

Here’s the recipe, pretty much the way we did it. This recipe makes two loafs, ample for thirteen guests with quite a bit left over. Cut things in half if you want to make a single loaf. In any case, you might have some crepes left over, which you can have for lunch after assembling the loaves and putting them into the fridge.

The evening before the event, we prepared the leeks as follows:

Braised Leeks
9 large leeks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup vegetable broth or water
kosher salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. To prepare the leeks, trim off the dark green stalks and the roots. Next, slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Place the leeks in a large bowl of cold water, cut side down, and allow them to sit there about 10 minutes. Most of the grit will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Rinse the leeks again, checking between the folds to make sure all the grit is gone. Dry the leeks with a paper towel. Spray a nine-by-13 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set the leeks in the baking dish, cut side up. Brush with the olive oil. Roast 20 minutes, tossing halfway through to make sure they don't get too brown. Pour vegetable broth over the leeks. Roast another 10 minutes or until leeks are tender. Season with kosher salt and pepper.

Having performed this elaborate cleansing ritual, I might be tempted, the next time around, merely to slice the leeks thin, remove what grit is present, and sauté. We found that when slicing the finished dish, the long fibrous strands of leek were occasionally difficult to break through.

The next morning we got going on the crepes, which Hilary made one-at-a-time in a crepe pan.

All Purpose Crepe Batter
1/4 cup cold water
3/4 cup cold milk
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour
3 tablespoons melted butter

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in center and pour in liquid ingredients. Stir until smooth.

The mushrooms weren’t difficult, though it took quite a while for the fluid to evaporate. I included a step here from a different recipe, adding ¼ cup of white wine and reducing before adding the broth. And as for the broth itself, we used a corner of a chicken bouillon cube dissolved in water to cut expenses.

1 pound baby bella mushrooms, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup butter
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 tablespoon dried marjoram
2 tablespoon flour
Dash of pepper
1/4 cup beef broth
2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté the mushrooms and onion in the butter until liquid evaporates. Stir in salt, marjoram, flour, pepper and broth. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heat and stir in parsley.

At this point, after boiling four eggs, we were ready to begin the assemble.

We had purchased two large fillets of farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which weighed in at 3.5 lbs in all. This is not a good time of year for Pacific salmon, and in any case, several butchers told us we’d be better off with the oilier, farm-raised variety, considering there was no way to check whether the salmon was done prior to cutting into the loaf.

Now wash the salmon fillets and pat dry. Remove any bones and skin. Put a little oil in a very large pan and sear the fillets on both sides. (It would be a good idea to cut them into chunks, which won’t hurt the assembly at all.) Put them on plates as they get done. The insides should still be raw.

The final assembly:

The first step is to roll out two pieces of puff pastry into rectangles. The top one will be somewhat larger than the bottom one. Flour a work surface and roll out a slab of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry to a rectangle maybe 9 x 13 inches. Roll out the other slab (two come in a box) and make it an inch smaller all the way around. The pastry stretches as you use it so the dimensions don’t need to be exact. Keep chilled until ready for use.

Now put the smaller sheet onto a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Arrange three or four crepes (overlapping) on dough followed by a layer consisting of ¼ of the mushroom duxelle. Then make a layer of leeks, followed by one of the eggs, sliced. These layers should extend to within one inch of the edge though they’ll taper inward as they pile up.

Top with half the salmon slices. (The other half goes into the other loaf.) Place an additional ¼ of the duxelle, then some more leeks, then another sliced egg over the salmon.

Make an egg wash and brush the exposed edges of the dough with it. Then apply the larger sheet of dough (which you’ve wisely kept cool in the fridge) on top. Seal all edges, cut off the excess dough, and roll pastry so the seam is underneath. Make some stars with the excess dough and apply to the top of the loaf. Then brush the entire top of the loaf with egg. Put in fridge. (Several of the recipes suggest making the entire thing the day before the event.) When the time comes, bake at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes.

Here’s the recipe we used for the hollandaise
Garden Herb Hollandaise
1 egg, yolk only
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup unsalted butter, soft
Salt and smoked paprika
1/2 cup, finely chopped selection of fresh herbs

Place the eggs yolk and lemon juice in a steel bowl over a double boiler. With a French whisk, combine vigorously until thick but not curdled and slowly add soft, whole butter until thickened. Add seasoning and herbs. Keep warm by placing in a warm water bath time to serve.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Edo Pop – A Star in the East

The Edo Pop exhibit currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is mostly Edo, with very little Pop. That’s OK with me. The Edo period, which spans the shogunate of the Tokugawa clan, runs from 1603 to 1868. During that time artists you’ve probably heard of—Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro—produced affordable woodblock prints of courtesans, Kabuki performers, scenes of Mt. Fuji, and floral and avian subjects that are a delight to behold.

The Institute owns scads of these works, and they’ve put the best of them on display in the first five rooms of the exhibit. In the last two rooms we have the privilege of seeing contemporary works—videos, acrylic paintings, brief amine films, masks—that draw upon the Ukiyo-E tradition. They’re far less interesting. But few, perhaps, are likely to rush to the museum and fork over $8 to see the prints we’ve been looking at all our lives for free.

Before the show we met some friends for Happy Hour at the Fuji-Ya, only a few blocks from the museum, where the rock-n-roll was booming out of the speakers above our heads. I asked our waitress, largely in jest, if they ever had live Koto music. She responded, “No, that was at the old place. And we all wore Kimonos there.” We were pleased to discover that she had actually worked at the old Fuji-Ya, down by the locks on the Mississippi River, for fifteen years. And she, in turn, was visibly pleased that we remembered it. In fact, I remember the Koto players they used to have there, and the water tumbling over the falls just outside the window. Hence the facetious question.

I ordered the hot sake, which comes in an earthenware pitcher. In all the Japanese films I’ve seen, two men pour for one another across the table repeatedly—the cups are very small—until both are pretty well drunk. But I was the only one in the group who ordered sake, and therefore I had to do all the pouring myself.

The food was simply great. Negi Mutsi, Shake Maki, Caterpillar (a long string of cucumber slices with a smoked eel running down the middle). It goes down too quickly, however, and the bill does mount up.

Our visit to the museum happened to be on a Third Thursday, during which the “youth” element is especially strong. A rock-n-roll band, The Brutes, was playing in the first floor atrium. People wearing ties and stylish dresses were crafting Christmas cards at a few folding tables nearby—no children in sight.

The first three rooms of the exhibit consisted of a long series of stylized renderings of geishas, semi-nude female abalone divers, kabuki stars, and scenes from Japanese folklore. I like these images for the same reason I like Homer. Beyond the artistic conventions lies an expressive force that appelas to us even today. And the world being depicted is pleasantly “primitive”—in other words, it’s largely free of junk.

In one print, a woman reads a poem-scroll. She has her ink tablet, and what looks to be a book press, too. There’s a samurai sword hanging near-by, in case the poetry gets out of hand, I guess.

In another print what appeals to me most is the slate green background. Later a stunning blue begins to appear. The text accompanying the prints is long and detailed. At a certain point I quit caring which Kabuki actor played what part, or where the illegal red light districts of Kobe were located in the eighteenth century. Time to just look and admire.

In the fourth room, just as our attention was beginning to lag, nature moved to the forefront of artistic interest. These are the famous and remarkable flowers and birds of Hokusai, the pilgrimage scenes of Hiroshige. I found myself looking longingly at some of the snow scenes. It’s mid-December, after all.

The final two rooms had fewer, but far larger works, many of them digital or photographic. It would take too long to describe what was interesting about them. For the most part, they signaled an vast increase in technological dependency, a regression into adolescence emotionally, and a noticable drop in expressive power.

The Institute has so many great works of art, that the discoveries we make on the way out are sometimes among the most memorable. On our way to the third floor to see the period rooms decked out in holiday festoons, we passed what has always been one of my three or four favorite works in the museum—the mille-fleur tapestry. Parked in front of the tapestry is a medieval sculpture of the Virgin and child. Also very nice. I happened to notice that the bends in her posture bear striking similarities to those of the courtesans in the red light district in Kyoto.

But a different message is being conveyed here. I think it has something to do with the child.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Reflections

- Rain in December, as we approach the shortest day of the year. It’s evocative, if not delightful, and the plants undoubtedly appreciate it.

- I recently made of poster of a photograph I took of the forest floor on the fringe of the Canadian Shield: baby white spruce, Labrador tea, bunchberry, wintergreen, false lily of the valley. You can see them all, larger than life above the fireplace, clamoring for space and light, yet harmoniously arranged. ( I did clone out a few dead twigs.)

- Which reminds me, it’s a time of death. My old camp director passed away recently. Then the co-owner of the firm where I worked for a quarter-century. (Where did they go?)

- A colleague from camp says, “We should have a reunion.” I say, “I don’t much like my former selves. Wouldn’t want to be introduced.”

- Racquetball. We aren’t as good as we once were. (Don’t play enough.)

- We skip the Bly reading. Sit by the fire catching up on the fate of the Euro.

-Then there’s the Saturday Met HD telecast of Gounod’s Faust. The story has never been good. Marlowe? No. Goethe? No. The gleeful and smug self-confidence of Mephistopheles is boring—the kind of catty naughtiness that jaded theater-goers love to titter at. Faust himself is a shallow cad with a beautiful voice. Marguerite is the best of the lot—simply naïve. She has been criticized for loving the jewels in the box too much. But the jewels provide the “objective correlative” for her brilliant, yet downtrodden, spirit.

It was fascinating to hear the Russian soprano, Marina Poplavskaya, being interviewed during intermission. She not only knows the part well, but embodies it, in so far as she seems to share the romantic faith and hope expressed by the character she’s portraying.

All three of the voices rise about the characters, as is so often the case with opera. The music lifts us above the story-line. Poplavskaya’s music most of all. She’s a believer.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Handel’s Rodelinda

There were maybe ten cars in the vast parking lot of the Brooklyn Park Regal Cinema when I pulled in at eleven Saturday morning. An elderly couple, neither of them much more than five feet tall, were walking gingerly toward the entrance across the asphalt under the dismal gray sky. Both carried canes, and I heard a middle-aged man say to his wife as I got out of my car: “This looks like the right crowd.”

When I asked for a ticket to “the opera,” having forgotten the name of the rarely-staged Handel work I was attending, the burly black teenager in the booth said, “Senior discount?”
“What’s the cut-off?” I asked.
After a split-second of hesitation, I shook my head. No. And forked over my $24.

Rodelinda is the story of the wife of a slain king who must marry the usurping tyrant to save the life of her son. It will come as no surprise to opera-goers that the king isn’t really dead. He returns in disguise with the hope, not of regaining his kingdom, but merely of rescuing his wife and son. He’s crestfallen to discover that she’s agreed to remarry, not knowing her bitter rationale, and certainly unaware that her vengeful condition for going through with the ceremony is that the tyrant must kill her son before her very eyes. Grimoaldo finds he can’t do it, and is eventually sent into a mental tail-spin as his conscience revolts at the crimes he must commit to retain the seat of dictatorial power. (Richard III he’s not.)

Throw in a trusted servant, a Machiavellian advisor, and a devoted sister to thicken the plot, and you have the ingredients for a first-rate opera. The sets are lavish and suitably Italianate, the orchestra maintains a subdued “period” flavor, with two harpsichords, no less! Fleming and Stephanie Blythe deliver their da capo arias with lovely agility, and the male leads are hardly less engaging.

Yet there seems to be a slight disjunct at the heart of this work. Throughout the afternoon, the two appealing elements I’ve just described—the melody and the drama—were somewhat at odds. And the fact that two of the four male leads were sung by counter-tenors didn’t help much. Though their voices were both very fine, the unusually high range they employed was not meant to be a reflection of character, but merely an convention of the era during which the opera was written, when castrati were the superstars of the genre.

It would be pointless, I suppose, to try to “work around” or modernize the piece by cutting the arias in half or recasting the castrati roles as baritones. As Renee Fleming herself pointed out in a recent interview, part of the appeal of the genre lies in its clarity and grace. The drama may be similar at times to the darkest turns of Simon Boccenegra or Rigoletto, but the vocal passages are invariably lilting and intricate.

It came as a surprise to me that one of the most lovely and memorable arias in Rodelinda was the heroine’s demand that the tyrant execute her son! There were times when I succumbed to the temptation to close my eyes to the drama and simply listen. And in doing do, I may have been adding to the historic accuracy of the experience. In Handel’s day, after all, subtitles didn’t exist, and few in the audience knew Italian.

Some critics objected to Italian opera at the time on precisely those grounds. If was felt that nothing edifying could be transmitted in a language no one could understand. Richard Steele, writing in the Tatler in April of 1709, observed:
“..the stage being a Entertainment of the Reason and all our Faculties, this Way of being pleased with the Suspence of ’em for Three Hours altogether, and being given up to the shallow Satisfaction of the Eyes and Ears only, seems to arise rather from the Degeneracy of our Understanding, than an Improvement of our Diversions.”
We might note in passing that Steele’s friend Joseph Addison had recently written an English-language libretto for an opera that was an utter flop. In any case, the fact that few could understand what was being said hardly seems to be the worst aspect of the opera performances of Handel’s day. As one historian of the era remarks, at the opera people would “play cards, chat, move about, eat oranges and nuts, spit freely, his and yowl at singer they did not like.” Many went simply for the stage effects and the remarkable vocal pyrotechnics of the Italian divas whose exorbitant fees eventually drove Handel to the brink of bankruptcy.

Times have changed, audiences have become more attentive, and I found myself growing increasingly irritated as a woman five rows behind me took fifteen minutes to extract her sandwich from a cheap plastic bag and then undo the Saran wrap. Reviving the eighteenth-century habit, I got up and moved long before she'd taken her first bite.

But with the help of subtitles, I left the theater five hours later, just as darkness was descending, not only buoyed by the boundless lyricism of Handel’s music but also more than a little moved by Grimoaldo’s crisis of conscience and abdication of power, Bertarido’s magnanimity, Rodelinda’s vehement defiance, and her son’s precocious courage.

Back home, I built a fire and scoured the shelves for a means of sustaining the mood. Here’s what I came up with:

Kiri Te Kanawa: Sorceress—A Handel Celebration with Christopher Hogwood (1994)
Emma Kirkby: Handel/Italian Cantatas (1981)
Natalie Dessay: Handel/Delirio (2005)
Lisa Saffer: Handel/Arias for Cuzzoni (1990)
Danielle de Niese: Handel Arias (2008)
And finally, Handel’s complete opera Aci, Galatea e Polifeo(1987)

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account, but I will say that the women with lighter voices—Kirkby, Dessay, and Saffer—wrap themselves around the music especially well.