Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guilty Pleasures

Pleasure is nothing to feel guilty about unless its circumstances involve the degradation of oneself, others, or life.  Taste is a matter of class and education.  I'm not sure that I feel particularly compelled to be mistaken for a Rothschild or a Harvard man, so my contemplation of the correctness of my tastes is mostly the residue of bourgeois wannabeism.  Sure, poor taste also reflects poorly on one's education, but then my tastes are not likely to exploit the labor of children or extort the life savings from war widows either.  Posh and trendiness have a lot to answer for, too.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How I Know I Am Not a Foody

Last summer I got to spend three weeks in the south of France with friends (foodies every one) and dined on the best food of my life and drank some of the best wine--and, somewhat less successfully, conversed on the delicate beauties of French cuisine.  The fact that I do not do very well in conversations about food and drink was perhaps the first sign I had that I am not, alas, a foody. 

Another sign is that I like iceberg lettuce.  Not to ruin anybody's day, but I actually prefer it to other forms of lettuce and I'm well over eleven years old.

And I drench my salad in dressing.  Iceberg lettuce floats, though only a tiny bit of it breaks the surface of (I should warn the fainthearted) Thousand Island dressing.  (If some wag is thinking about quipping that if I actually ate greens with more flavor I would not need so much dressing, I have just said it for you.  So there.)

Also, I like mayonnaise.  A lot.  

Also, I cannot name two ingredients in a Cosmopolitan.  And I have never made a martini.  I have drunk several, without thinking much of them.

Also, I have never knowingly watched the Food Channel.

Also, although I could look up the word "nougat," I will not, even though I have no earthly idea what it means.  Okay, if forced, I would guess it means "gooey."

Though my brain knows better, my tongue still thinks Velveeta is cheese.

And I think it's pretentious to say "bon appetit," even if you're French.  But if you're not French, I actually feel my skin crawl.  Literally.  I really do.

I like hot dogs, and, yes, I know how they're made.  My friend Shane has taught me to prefer dogs with some snap to them, and Prague reminded me that I do like sausages that retain some resemblance to meat under the skin.  But no matter.  Give me a hot dog, and I will want mustard, relish, slaw, AND chili on top of it, which can bury a lot of shoddy workmanship in the wiener-making business.

French's yellow mustard.

Because my mother was not a good cook--color-coding was her idea of culinary art ("Everything we're having is BROWN!")--I prefer condiments in general to actual food in general.

I prefer sweet iced tea to hot tea.  Even I feel pretty crummy about this, and tend to drink more hot tea than iced tea, thinking perhaps that I can reform my taste buds in this way, though I drink more Coke Zero than any kind of tea.

Over the years, I have learned to appreciate and prefer steak that is bloody (in France I impressed my friends to no end by ordering steak tartare at a restaurant, which served the dish with mayo, by the way).  I prefer dark to milk chocolate, and especially dark chocolate served with (thank you, Dominique) a dark dark dark dark dry red wine.  I absolutely delight in foie gras, even though I ordinarily detest organ meats ... and even though I am sympathetic to the plight of ducks.  I now know, too, which dining utensil to pick up first without even waiting for somebody else to make the first move.  But however much I love asparagus and cabbage, I still can't get down a single brussels sprout (the love child of asparagus and cabbage, as I see it), unless the sprout is roasted and I can pour catsup on it.

I should get some points for spelling catsup with a "c" and an "s."  Thank you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Three Temptations of Pinocchio

Pinocchio is a tale of a puppet on a quest to become "real."  I do not know the book, only the 1940 Disney movie, a movie I saw as a child during one of its re-releases in the 1960s and came to love because my father, perhaps without meaning much by it, once stated that it was his favorite movie.

In the course of the story, the puppet Pinocchio, with the ineffectual assistance of his "conscience," a cricket named Jiminy, faces three pivotal obstacles in the form of temptations.  The first is to skip his first day of school and become an actor in the company of the puppeteer Stromboli.  I take this to be the temptation to be inauthentic--a "player" pretending to be something he is not.  The second is to lie to the Blue Fairy--to distort what he knows to be true--a distortion that manifests itself in the distortion of Pinocchio's face:  his nose grows.  And the third is to succumb to the lure of Pleasure Island.

As depicted in the film, the suspect pleasures of Pleasure Island are brawling, smoking, and playing pool, activities associated with hooking up with a bad crowd.  For me, the problem with Pleasure Island might have been its association with just the sort of escapism that elsewhere Disney seems to endorse.  But then I didn't make the movie.

What Disney suggests is that Pinocchio needs to find equilibrium and balance.  But life, I think, is change, a perpetual becoming--and to live one's life for "real" you have, to some degree, to accept and negotiate the constant changes.  This requires you to accommodate imbalance somehow.  The sort of "balance" American popular culture recommends is "happy consciousness,"  as Marcuse called it:  "the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods."  This false consciousness or bad faith demands that each of us "get in step" and pretend to a rational balance that does not exist in reality--a belief we enter through otherwise banal amusements that encourage passivity and avoidance of the realities that do not fit the model.  It is more perfectly imagined in the land of the lotos eaters in the Odyssey than in Disney's Pleasure Island.

This is the temptation to remove yourself from the  energetic and erratic pulse of life.  Lulls no doubt are needed as a part of the wavelike pattern of progress, but I tend to think it's a mistake to seek ways to remain in those lulls.  I am not a big one for "creature comforts."  I do not want to live perpetually in a warm cocoon.

Heraclitus thought that pleasure poses a threat to the life of the soul, a way of turning a blind eye towards life and reality.  By pleasure he seems to have meant drunkenness and the sodden escapism of the couch potato (or whatever equivalent of the couch potato he might have been familiar with).  Heraclitus was not a big one for "creature comforts," either.

Karl Marx famously spoke of the opium of the people.  For him it was religion.  He followed this metaphor with the statement that "the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness" (emphases mine).   "Real" happiness involves real engagement with the world, not escapism, not bad faith, not creature comforts that dull the wits and blunt the will.

Real pleasure, then, is the opposite of the dehumanizing pleasures depicted on Pleasure Island.  It is the opposite, too, of the obscurantist aspects of religion and the opposite of the enervating escapism of mass media.  Real happiness and real pleasure sharpen the senses and fire up the emotions, which, in turn, encourage self-discipline--and a sense of adventure--to navigate through the complicated fluctuations of life ... and the real world.

I don't think I am altogether reading Pinocchio against the grain in saying that through his failures in all three temptations, the little wooden protagonist learns to value life--to love the true as opposed to the illusory, and to seek adventure, as opposed to mindless self-destructiveness, the counterfeit of adventure--to accept the "becoming" of life as its real and only meaning--to face with courage the sometimes discomforting struggles of life (read: "Monstro the whale").  This is the true heart and goodness of soul that Pinocchio displays to prove his authenticity--his humanness--at the end of the tale.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pasolini's Gospel

I remember seeing Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964) at a rundown arthouse theater in Columbia, South Carolina.  I was in my late twenties, still nominally a christian, though vaguely aware that I then liked everything about christianity but the theology and the christians.

If I were ever to consider myself a christian again, it would be along the lines of Tolstoy's christian anarchism or Pasolini's austere cinema poetry--a gospel inflected with the director's marxism, atheism, and homosexuality.  It was Pasolini's film, in fact, that convinced me that St Matthew's gospel, the most radical of the four, was the most humane and beautiful version of the life and teachings of Jesus.

Like Sergei Eisenstein, another commie pinko fag (literally), Pasolini builds his narrative and theme on the power of faces in tight close-up.  Not the glamorous faces of Hollywood, but the faces of ordinary people.  Like Eisenstein, Pasolini relied on the evocative power of the faces of his extras, whom he cast for their ability to convey whichever emotions the film needed at its key moments.  Casting of the larger roles in Matteo followed the model of neorealism, as Pasolini cast non-actors as the biblical characters--ordinary wage-laborers as the disciples and a half-Basque, half-Jewish university student as Jesus. 

The human face is the soul of humanism, I think.  Renaissance painters seemed to think the same thing.  The power of Pasolini's version of the Jesus story comes from his rejection of Cinemascope and Technicolor "epic" in favor of stark black-and-white compositions.  Dialogue is stripped to a minimum.  Many scenes are silent, with the director relying on the fact that perhaps no story is as familiar to his audience as this one, so exposition is superfluous.  And whereas Mel Gibson (like the greater part of christendom) relishes Jesus's blood, Pasolini pays homage to Jesus's teachings, including the sermon on the mount in its entirety, the camera tightly on the face of the actor playing Jesus, for the greater part of the long recital.   The crucifixion and resurrection take up less screen time than this sermon's eloquent quietism, and much of the drama of the climactic execution centers on its effect on those who loved the man Jesus, notably his mother, Mary, played by Pasolini's mother.


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