Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As Christmas approached and the weather became colder, Faustina assumed her pear-shaped winter body and spent the evenings curled up in her basket by the boiler in the kitchen, while Sophia stirred various mixtures stiff with fruit and nuts and laced with brandy.
Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment

Friday, December 10, 2010

the dude's good

Actors receive all kinds of Oscars. A common one is the Oops, Our Bad Oscar, awarded for a good performance when (more importantly) the recipient is getting up there in years and/or overdue for some general recognition and/or was snubbed embarrassingly in previous years. Jeff Bridges' 2009 Academy Award for Crazy Heart, which some claimed was that kind of classic Overdue Oscar, was actually for something else if you ask me: smoking.

There has never been a smoker like Bridges in films, and when I say that I am thinking of all film smokers and all smoking movies, from Bogie to Now, Voyager. Bridges' relationship with things he lights on fire and sticks in his mouth creates a parallel world of expression in film that he uses to great advantage and it deserves some recognition beyond the tiny gold cigarette that must be dangling from the mouth of his Oscar.

It started in his earliest work. Bridges smokes in a scene at the end of The Last Picture Show (1971) before he ships off to Korea, his uniform--and his cigarette---hinting at adulthood. Even then Bridges shows some of his classic smoking gestures, including holding his fingers close to his face and tilting his head down as he inhales.

In Starman (1984), Bridges depicts an alien come to earth who in one scene learns to smoke for the first time, (showing us, maybe, how he learned to do it) and before dissolving into a coughing jag that demonstrates the classic Bridges hollow-cheeked suck:

Among other parts in the 80s, Bridges was a post-war smoking innoventor in Tucker (1988):

before the role that I think earned him a gold medal as a movie smoker, The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), which, I'm sorry to tell the film industry, cigarette manufacturers, and my mother, made me want to smoke. I already smoked occasionally, but his character made me want to smoke better.

Taciturn, hooded-eyed pianist Jack Baker is a virtuoso smoker rendered in Bridges' naturalistic acting style, which extends into the smoking as well. Bridges is smart in that he doesn't pretend he's not smoking or minimize his movements. Nor does he try to look as if--or avoid appearing as if--he's too cool for the activity; he engages with it, looks foolish doing it on occasion, has some big gestures the way real smokers do, revels in the sensuality of it. It's subtle in human ways, not classically cinematic ones.

In The Fabulous Baker Boys he luxuriates in long, long scenes of smoking, letting it speak for him--indulging in the smoking even as his character remains coldly closed off. He employs some classic Bridges stuff such as the Dangle, which should look stupid--he talks with the cigarette wobbling in his lips, his eyes screwed up against the smoke, his lower lip pushed up in a silly way to keep it there--but on Bridges doesn't:

He has a distinct way of dragging hard on a cigarette then pulling it out of his mouth at the very last minute before speaking a line to punctuate it, showing that he is thinking and paying attention, but controlling his involvement in the scene until he's ready. He keeps his fingers poised over the cigarette and very close to his mouth the whole time before quickly whipping it out to the side, speaking quietly in the space his gestures have created:

He does this constantly in Baker Boys, accompanied always by the Bridges Suck, which can look goofy or voluptuous, but is always right there in the front of his mouth:

Here it is again in Blown Away (1994):

It goes without saying that somebody who's won a Smoking Oscar has demonstrated versatility in different smoking media, such as evil cigar smoking in Iron Man (2008):
presidential smoke rings in The Contender (2000):
more period smoking in Seabiscuit (2003):
and completely convincing pot smoking (which Bridges apparently quit during production) in The Big Lebowski (1998). The scenes in which the Dude smokes do a lot to show us who this guy is. He smokes like a real pothead: with ease, without worry about how he looks or with nervous attention to paraphernalia, but with a nonetheless dogged and sometimes myopic attention.

Bridges is really good at using smoking as a signifier of dissolute characters and of vulnerability in general, such as the alcoholic ex jail-bird in American Heart (1992) (the thumb push on the bottom lip--also a Bridges move):

and in Crazy Heart, which is among other things something of a paean to smoking. It is an absolute tapestry of debauched, repetitive physical gestures. He's almost never without one:
This was the first film of Bridges' I saw that made me think: is this ultimately a (big, sophisticated, chronic) tic? A crutch? It's so distinctive, so wholesale--there is major risk in doing something on such a big scale. His smoking characters smoke onscreen a lot, and it seems like there are more and more of them. It's either really convincing or the air's so thick with gestures you can't see past it.

True Grit, the Coen brothers sorta-remake with Bridges in the John Wayne role, which opens December 22, appears to be a possible apogee of Bridges' onscreen smoking. Even the trailer feels smoky, with all its grays and browns and outdoor shots and period quality:
Playing Rooster Cogburn gives him the opportunity to work an extremely boiled-down, aged, potent version of classic Bridges acting, full of vulnerabilities and gestures and (hand-rolled) cigarette smoking. I am guessing he will be great, if he doesn't tip over into growly caricature. Either way, though, it looks like Bridges' role as King of Cinesmoking is secure. No matter how you feel about smoking--it makes me ill now, I'm sorry to say; my days of hoping to imitate the Bridges insouciance are long gone--he sure is good at it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

guy smiley

There are a lot of things to say about the Guy Fieri Fenomenon, but the thing I'm here to get off my chest is this: I've never seen any cooking show as heterosexual as Guy's Big Bite. The bachelor rec room feel represents a big change in the traditional pitch of cooking show atmosphere.

There are other manly cooking shows: Steven Raichlen, host of "Primal Grill," with his grindingly personality-free delivery, is very butch; super-butch, in fact, in his fire-focused cooking and constant use of Tongs. Former Idaho game warden Cee-Dub (I love Cee-Dub), king of outdoor Dutch oven cookery and practical, portable ingredients, even more so. But those shows are set outdoors, which has been the main provence of the manly male cooking show cook to date. Fieri's show is filmed indoors. It aggressively designs a world where the regular guy hangs with his bros but still worries about the freshness of his buffalo mozz.

"Guy's Big Bite" is actually a better show than the live audience and competition shows Fieri hosts (I cannot stand to watch those, honestly), or even Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, which features great restaurants but is hobbled by, well, Fieri: his constant fidgeting for the next (co-opted, outdated) catch phrase combined with lack of food vocabulary makes for a hard slog watching it, and the fact that the show is usually edited around him, rather than the cooks he's interviewing, is a mistake.

Regardless, the main interest "Guy's Big Bite" has to me is as a monument to heterosexual male signifiers. The set for the first season of his show was much plainer (downright cheap-looking, really, with its sponged purple walls), but as he became more famous, the kitchen grew too. In Fieri's current TV kitchen, there is: a pool table (see top photo); racing stripes on the refrigerator:

a band rig in the corner:

hub caps on the walls and motoX on the TV:
and a pinball machine:

The logo that opens the show is blocky and bold; the heavy, granite-like letters crash to the ground (yabba dabba doo):

It's all an outgrowth of Fieri's "kulinary gangsta" (™) schtick, which he works insanely hard: the guido bling, the wrist bands, the surf shirts, the Bermuda shorts, the hair, the bro patois, the sunglasses, the Sammy Hagar vibe (including the slightly mediocre, not-David Lee feel), the stadium tours, the TGIFriday's endorsement. Even Fieri's (personal) logo has an Ed Hardy flavor, as you can see here in this ad for his "Knuckle Sandwich" brand of knives, which is itself a NASCAR sponsor (I'm not sure there's ever existed a more white heterosexual male sentence in the context of cooking than that):

Although people spend a lot of time gnashing their teeth about Fieri and his blizzard of hype (I thought Anthony Bourdain's comment comparing him to Poochie the Rockin Dog was apt), "Guy's Big Bite" is actually quite conventional. Granted, sometimes the packaging obscures the content, but that's all the grown-up man toys are: packaging. The structure of his show is the same as any other. (The content really isn't that bad--if you squint through the Fieri-blah and the usual TV chef-blah, there is occasionally new information in there and some good recipes.) He gives many dishes dumb names, like "No Can Beato This Taquito" (that one might be offensive as well as dumb) or "Beef--The Bomb--Bourguignon," and makes a cocktail every episode (those always have dumb names), but his cooking style isn't notably different from anybody else's, other than in his devotion to butch squirt bottles, which never seem as carefree to use as he might like, since even with labels it can be hard to tell what's in them. His food tastes are probably too conventional and middle-class for some people; you have to wonder what Bourdain would think about this recent anti-offal quote from Fieri: "I do not appreciate the parts of the animal that had a job. Parts that are licked, make sound, push, filter, walk and so on are not for me.” But I don't think he's a bad cook.

Fieri got his start on TV as the winner of the second season of "The Next Food Network Star." The winners of the first season were Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, a real-life couple who were more or less the opposite of the bomb-diggity het male cook, with their cozy help-me-here-a-sec-honey banter. Their show didn't take off, for what reason I don't know. I think Food Network promoted the heck out of it, but they promote Fieri harder (obviously), with a seeming glee at discovering a hitherto untapped market or at least way to pitch to it.

I do wonder what it means for cooking shows that the bar has been raised so extremely high in terms of branding--not necessarily super straight or cozy queer--but because it's so personality-driven. Bourdain complains a lot about Food Network cheese, but his network, The Travel Channel, has the same problem with its marketing, sometimes worse. Their big hitter line-up--Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, the Man V. Food guy, whose show is all--only--personality, since it consists basically of him sitting and eating and making faces about it--all white dudes--is promoted as yeah rebellious! Their bad-ass selves! Yeah! Woo! These guys! The whole thing isn't quite as superficial as Fieri-land, but it's still heavily leveraged and all that's left over for those of us who find it artificial is Samantha Brown and the 9000th showing of thinly-vieled service pieces like "Hot Dog Paradise."

Call me crazy, but I don't think cooking is an activity organically suited to performance. The occasional burst of flame or masterful toss of contents in a skillet is immediately followed by...seven minutes of covered braising. Or washing a pan. Or peeling pounds of potatoes. Fieri occupies the silliest end of trying to make cooking Exciting! every step of the way, but honestly I find even the less pushy versions of that kind of cooking show uninteresting, the more so the more they try. One reason that I still worship Jacques Pepin's TV cooking, where he lets La Technique speak for itself.

Guy Fieri Road Show