Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Jesting Palate

At the end of his book Down and Out in Paris and London, his exploration of the underbelly - the "dirty handkerchief" side - of two great cities, George Orwell was able to sum up his experience: "Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."

I didn't have to be hard up, or quite as hard up as Orwell was, to arrive at the same conclusion about a "smart restaurant." I've eaten in some high end restaurants in my life, but always at someone else's invitation. It was never my idea to spend an extraordinary sum of money for a meal. I confess to having a quite undeveloped palate when it comes to "fine dining." I find that pub grub is far more a8ppetizing. But I am not a fool. I can eat at an Old Spaghetti Factory without suffering a loss of prestige or self esteem. Taco Bell is always an option.

I don't pretend to know much about fine dining. I know why the fork is always on the right and exactly how the knife is held. But that is practically it. I do know enough about esthetics, however, to know why food should be arranged on a plate to maximize the satisfaction of a person's hunger. Fine dining establishments, however, aren't known to attract hungry patrons.

For many reasons, some less clear than others, Japanese food is becoming the new haute cuisine. The French term means literally "high cooking", and was developed in the French royal court as a deliberate effort to differentiate food that was eaten by commoners from food eaten at court, simply because only someone in the highest circles of French society could afford to eat something like caviar. Since the 17th century, it has become a cuisine with special ingredients, prepared by highly trained chefs, presented to the diner in high end restaurants. As much attention is paid to the presentation of the food, the way in which it's arranged on a plate, according to aesthetic principles intended to appeal as much to the eyes as the nose. Such meals are also intended to cost an amount of cash that puts it out of the reach of the average diner. If you have to ask the price of the dish, the saying goes, then you probably can't afford it.

But the current interest being lavished on Japanese food is especially surprising to me because, while I have been enthusiastic about various aspects of Japanese culture, their literature and films, since I was in my teens, their food has always defied my appreciative abilities. To me Japanese cuisine is like their music, played with the biwa, the kotō or a bamboo flute, which is interesting but only tenuously recognizable as music. No one can accuse me of ignorance in these matters, after reading Japanese literature (in translation) voluminously, from Akutagawa Ryunosuke to Oe Kenzaburo, and championing Japanese films from the more "Western," extroverted Kurosawa to the more refined and "distinctly Japanese" Ozu. I lived in Japan, thanks to the U.S. Navy, for three years in the 1990s and I have absorbed the highly individual - and loving - observations of Japanese culture from fellow transplanted Westerners like Alan Bloom and Donald Richie.

Unlike some other national cuisines, like Italian or Mexican, or even Chinese, Japanese food does not, when it sees you coming, jump out of it's chair and run forward to embrace you in greeting. Japanese food is alot like the Japanese themselves. It is reticent and standoffish. Its flavors don't jump out at you. It is subtle. It is, to use a worn out phrase, an acquired taste - which only means that you won't like it on a first or second tasting. You will have to be patient and work on liking it.

And this is precisely where I leave the room. First, anyone with sense should reconsider trying to like something that he didn't like on the first go. Second, while there is a number of Japanese dishes that I enjoy, like katsudon (or pork donburi), soba noodles, and yakitori (barbecue chicken), and while the Japanese have perfected the art of brewing beer so that Kirin is one of the finest lagers in the world, I don't enjoy much of Japanese cuisine and I have never found saké to be a palatable tipple, served warm or cold.

A discriminating gastronome can find enough in Japanese food to tantalize his taste buds, as long as he is selective. Arguments promoting its appeal to more refined palates are, I think, counterproductive, not to mention snobbish. But there is more to it than this. If an American unacquainted with Asian culture were to travel to Japan or Korea or to Hong Kong, probably one of the first things he will notice is that the people aren't all shorter than he is, or nearly as short as he expected them to be. As anyone who has visited Asia for a few decades can tell him, there is a definite trend among Asians for taller and more muscular young people. Asians in their twenties are taller and heavier than their parents, just as their parents are also bigger than their grandparents. When I was in Japan, I heard reports of schools having to supply 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders on up to high schoolers with bigger desks. This trend can be traced all the way back to the end of World War II when Japanese people first began to be exposed to Western varieties of food and Western lifestyles. A more prosperous Japan meant a higher demand for protein in the diets of average people.

Statistics keeping track of the average height of 17-year-old Japanese men reveal that, in 1948, just after the war when Japan was occupied by the U.S. military, the average height was recorded at 160.6 centimeters, or 5'3". By 2013, after several generations of Japanese had been exposed to foods other than traditional Japanese cuisine, i.e., rice, fish, and vegetables, the average height was recorded at 170.7 centimeters, or 5'7". In 65 years, the height of the average 17-year-old Japanese man increased ten centimeters, or four inches.(1) Clearly, this has to do with a much higher intake of protein in the Japanese diet, which is a reflection of the greater prosperity of Japanese society. These statistics are also surprising in light of the fact that Japanese people are longer-lived than any other indigenous population.

Sirloin steaks used to be served in restaurants with a slice of bacon wrapped around them. The bacon is there to heighten the flavor of the beef, which is so lean that it's difficult to distinguish it as meat. Japanese beef, as always at a premium price from your butcher, is deliciously marbled and melts in your mouth. Anyone can find interesting pleasures in a national cuisine that is as unique as Japan's. But I find its pleasures attenuated, conditional, and its nutritive value dubious, at best. Pushing it at fine dining establishments is sensible, but I don't see average diners in great numbers lining up for raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed. Eat as much sushi (or sashimi) as you like, but don't forget the wasabi.

(1) See "Trend of the average height of Japanese Men." .

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Then He Shot Her

"His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after  day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel."

I came across a digital version of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men and, with the movie fresh in my mind (it's aired on one or another cable movie channel routinely), I decided to read it.

First of all, the widely celebrated Coen Brothers film, though it possesses a few virtues (mostly from its brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins), is crippled by what I would call a conflict of intent. It has elements of a thriller, with a quite monstrous antagonist, what I called in my review of the film, "a kind of serial killer for hire," and the elements of a chase, with the hero trying to get away clean with a satchel full of money. There are gun battles and plenty of graphic violence.

McCarthy has had more than one brush with Hollywood. His Border Trilogy started its life as a movie script. Billy Bob Thornton, with every good intention, tried to make a decent adaptation of All the Pretty Horses and failed, presumably because of interference from the film's producers. Having seen the film, it would've been hard, even without interference, to make a creditable film out of the material. What you find in McCarthy is an exclusively male ethos. So whatever conviction the individual novels have relies on the relationships among their male characters. I agree with James Wood that while he is capable of writing beautiful prose, especially in his descriptions of nature, McCarthy has a tendency toward grandiose - and often theatrical - flights of language. Within a page of No Country, for instance, the philosophical murderer Anton Chigurh steals a sheriff's cruiser and pulls over another vehicle. Asking the driver to step out of the car, Chigurh kills him with a pneumatic gun used to kill steers in a slaughter house. "The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see." I don't imagine the "uncoupling" happened slowly. And "visible to see" is not only redundant but meaningless.

Quoting James Wood, "The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense." And although he called McCarthy's No Country for Old Men "an unimportant, stripped-down thriller," the Coen Brothers' movie adaptation leaves far too many loose ends dangling, as if they were trying to improve on McCarthy with an artiness the book scrupulously avoids. "Everything is tight, reduced, simple, and very violent. McCarthy’s idea for the Border Trilogy (which comprises All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) began life as a film script, and No Country for Old Men has already been sold to the producer Scott Rudin, so perhaps it is easier to think of it as a script than as a novel. That is to say, the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar."(1) But what the Coen Brothers ended up with, despite it winning accolades including an Oscar for Best Picture of 2008, is a flawed film, crying out for clarity as it hurtles toward a muddy conclusion. There are at least three places in the last ten minutes of the film that could've been made a lot clearer if the Coens had wanted to be more honest and more faithful to McCarthy's novel.

In the movie, when Moss checks into his last motel, a woman by the pool flirts with him and offers him a beer. Next we see them after a shootout and they're both dead. We never learn the circumstances of either's death, which is one of the glaring loose ends the Coens just leave dangling. In the book Moss picks up a 15-year-old girl hitchhiking. In a lengthy exchange between them, Moss tries to set her on the straight and narrow and even gives her some money. Then a Mexican in a black Barracuda shows up, takes the girl hostage, and Moss comes out of his room with a machine gun. Seeing the Mexican's gun at her head, Moss puts his gun down, prompting the Mexican to shoot them both dead. But not before Moss shoots down the Mexican. I suppose the Coens believed all this was unnecessary, so they cut it. What they forgot is that the audience that has followed Moss with great interest for the length of the film might want to know the circumstances of his death.

The Coens' next big misstep occurs when Sheriff Bell returns to the motel where Moss was killed. In the movie, Chigurh is still in the room when the sheriff returns. I watched the scene several times trying to figure out where Chigurh was hiding but I could never figure it out. A friend who admires the movie a lot more than I do told me Chigurh was hiding in the closet. But what closet?  If there was a closet in that room, I'm going blind betimes. In the book, Chigurh, having already retrieved the case of money from the airduct (another detail omitted from the movie), is sitting in his truck when Bell returns. Bell realizes this and calls for backup. But Chigurh gets away again.

The third dangling loose end in the movie comes when Carla Jean finds Chigurh waiting for her in her house. He's there to kill her in fulfillment of a promise he made to her husband. But he gives her the option of a coin toss. She loses. Next we see Chigurh driving away before his truck is t-boned by a car running a stop sign. What became of Carla Jean? The Coens doubtless believed her fate could be inferred. In the novel there is no such deliberate vagueness, or what you might also call pussyfooting:

"She looked at him a final time. You dont have to, she said. You dont. You dont.

He shook his head. You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesnt allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people dont believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say  the world. Do  you see?

Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do.

Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her.

At least you could say that McCarthy, like Chigurh, had the courage of his convictions. The Coens had not.

The Coens' discretion at choosing not to show us how Moss and Carla Jean die is not as admirable as they perhaps thought it would be. It is utterly inconsistent with every other detail they chose to show us. And it is certainly far from Cormac McCarthy's cruel intentions.

There are other differences between the book and the movie that are minor, but that sacrifice realism for the picturesque. Moss finds the "ultima hombre" from the Mexican shootout dead among some rocks, not under a completely incongruous shady tree. When Moss returns to the scene of the shootout, Mexicans pursue him. In the movie, they set a dog on him and Moss shoots it just as it is lunging at him. There's no dog in McCarthy's account. And, inexplicably, in the movie Chigurh kills the business executive in his office. In the book he simply delivers the satchel of money and departs. Chigurh is a man of his word, for what it's worth.

Worse than all these little objections to the film's violation of the novel is the obvious pains the Coens took to replicate the violence, down to the smallest detail. This sort of thing is relatively easy for any decent filmmaker. It goes back to what James Wood wrote about how "the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films." But just thinking of the care with which the filmmakers planned and staged Chigurh's killing of the three Mexicans in the motel, with the different calibured guns, the squibs - exploding pockets of blood attached to the actors who get shot - the careful sound effects, points to a grisly kind of pedantry. And all McCarthy did was write down a few hundred words.

So I suppose that James Wood's opinion that the book was ready-made for a screen adaptation was incorrect. Even as attenuated and discreet as the novel is, compared to McCarthy's other work, his pen can go where a camera cannot always follow - even when it's the camera of Roger Deakins. Despite his obvious efforts at a stripped-down style, like the best - or the worst - of Hemingway, there is evidently no such thing as a text that is "ready-made" for the screen. I wasn't surprised when the movie got so much praise and won some awards.  For the first time in their careers (always with the exception of Fargo), the Coens were depicting people who were more than caricatures and events that weren't whopping contrivances. McCarthy's novel is emphatic about fate, even as Sheriff Bell awaits his inevitable meeting with Chigurh, who seems to be Fate personified, at the story's end. Everything that happens was bound to happen, which is the opposite of the Coens' usual philosophy. But their faithful adaptation could've been more faithful if they had disregarded the presumed sensitivities of their audience. Their movie would've impressed them more, and would've been worthier of all it's awards.

(1) James Wood, "Red Planet," The New Yorker, July 25, 2005.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Birthday Prayer

Today is the 10th birthday I have celebrated on this blog, even though I didn't take the time last year to do so. But then, last year was so terrible for so many - and for so many reasons - that it's no wonder I neglected to apostrophize it.

The first birthday I observed, in 2008, I was turning 50 and the post got the attention of a friend I hadn't seen in fourteen years. I quoted Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin in the post. The following year, in "And Where Could I Marvel My Birthday Away?", I wrote about all the different places in the world, from 1987 until 2009, where I celebrated my birthday. I concluded with a poem by the Alexandrian poet Cavafy, "Ithaka."

In 2010, in "Sunday Morning, May 16," I chose Wallace Stevens to quote at length. In 2011, in "Wish You Were Here," I once again wrote about the itinerant nature of my life, quoting the song from Paint Your Wagon,

Do I know where hell is, hell is in hell-o.
Heaven is good-bye forever it's time for me to go.
I was born under a wand'rin' star, 
A wand'rin', wand'rin' star.

I was being wistful, quoting this time from poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Graves, and concluding: "Here on my Philippine island for another birthday, already having lived in four different houses, I don't know where I will be next year. There is wonder in that speculation, but also some rue. I've stopped here, for the time being, but where I will be in a year I wish I could say, but can't."

In 2012, in "The Ghost of a Birthday Present," I concluded: "All these numbers, ages, and calendar dates are only so many arbitrary conceits. Or so I keep telling myself every time my birthday rolls around. I agree with Oscar Wilde, who died at the comparatively tender age of 46, but who had the foresight to discover that "the tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young."

2013 had me in a speculative mood, offerering "A Question and an Answer." The question was from W. H. Auden, the answer from Mary Oliver. In 2014, in "There Is Something I Can Do," I celebrated the optimistic humanity of Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru.

In 2015, in the long post "The Voyage In," I felt I'd had enough and wanted out, or at least off my Philippine island. I quoted Homer, Tennyson, Wallace Stevens, and said at the end, "No more, gods. Let me go home." They weren't listening.

Last year my sister, who had waited for my return home for nine years, died. Today is my very first birthday without her somewhere in the world. But there is always the terrible neccessity of saying something, of giving utterance even if it is only of despair of utterances.I looked around me in my ebooks for something to give meaning to my present existence. I struggled. And then, just this morning, I was reading from George Herbert's Poems and I found this:


Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

Herbert, like most of the men of his age, had a personal relationship with a very real God. The word "prayer" itself has only a rhetorical meaning for me. Yet the beauty of Herbert's words is substantial. 

And so I offer you this prayer, dear reader, as my proof of life.