"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recipes–Cold Curried Chicken Salad; Cold Asian Eggplant; and Hummus

These recipes are very simple, tasty, and also go well together. The chicken and eggplant dishes require a little watching to be sure they are cooked right, neither over- nor underdone. The advantage to these dishes is that they can be made beforehand and all benefit from sitting for a few hours or more. There are many good varieties of prepared hummus around, but with this recipes you can control the taste.  Often the store-bought varieties have too much garlic and salt, and are meant for nibbles before dinner.  This recipe is for the hummus to be one of the dishes of the meal.

Cold Curried Chicken Salad

This recipe is for four people.  The only trick is not overcooking the chicken; and I will give some tips below on how to avoid this.

* 3 –4 lg. boneless, skinless chicken breasts (sometimes the breasts are really big, probably a half-pound each; other times they are smaller)

* 2-3 cups whole milk yoghurt (if you are really particular about fat, you can use lowfat yoghurt; but the whole milk variety gives creamy texture and there is no risk of separation

* 1 cup sour cream (same issue as above – whole fat sour cream is best)

* 2 Tbsp. Madras curry powder (this is approximate.  Tasting for strength is the only way, and it is hard to put in too much)

* 1 Tbsp. ground cumin

* 1 Tbsp. sweet mango chutney

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 1 Tbsp. sugar (more, if necessary, to taste)

* 1 cup hydrated, halved prunes (or raisins). 

* 1/2 cup salted, roasted almonds (you can get good ones at Whole Foods or most supermarket.  If you prefer, buy the unroasted ones and roast yourself in iron skillet, no oil, until they are slightly blackened.  Careful not burn).

- Boil the whole chicken breasts in enough water to amply cover them.  The cooking time will depend on the size of the breasts, but they should be first checked after 10 minutes, no more.  While cooking you can take one out, poke it, and if juices are pink, more cooking is required.  Also, the breast should give a little to the touch, and if it is not done, it will be soft.  You do not want them to be cooked until they are hard.  Take the thickest one out after 10 minutes or before if you suspect they are done, and cut a large piece off the end.  If they are done, there should be no red, raw part on the inside.  They should be not quite cooked, for when you remove them, they will continue to cook.

- Let the breasts cool, then cut them into 2” cubes, letting them drain on the cutting board. This is important because you want as little running juice as possible in the curry sauce

- Mix all the above ingredients in a serving bowl, taste and adjust for spices, add salt to taste

- Add the chicken pieces, mix well, chill and serve.

Cold Asian Eggplant

* 1 1/2 lg. unpeeled eggplant, cut into 2” pieces (the skin adds a lot of flavor to the dish, and after grilling will not be tough)

* 1 Tbsp. olive oil for sauce, and 1 tsp. for broiling

* 2 tsp. (approx.) soy sauce

* 2 tsp. (approx.) balsamic vinegar

* 1 tsp. sesame oil

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

- Spread the eggplant pieces on an oven tray, covered with tin foil (the tin foil is only to save work cleaning the tray)

- Broil for about 10 minutes (pieces should be lightly browned)

- Add a drizzle of olive oil, then mix them well with a spatula (you don’t have to do piece by piece, just turn and mix)

- Broil for another ten minutes or so, checking frequently to be sure the pieces are browning but not burning.  They will be done when all pieces have browned and they are still a bit soft, but not underdone.  Eggplant is one of those vegetables that is not very appetizing if undercooked (watery and strong taste), but delicious when cooked right

- Put in a serving bowl and add the above ingredients.  Mix well, taste, adjust if necessary, finish with a few grindings of fresh black pepper

- Chill and serve

Homemade Hummus

* 1 can garbanzo beans, drained

* 2 heaping Tbsp. tahini (easily available these days in supermarkets)

* 1 lg. lemon, juiced

* 1 lg. clove of garlic, chopped

* 5-6 black Greek olives

* 1Tbsp. olive oil plus 2 tsp. for garnish

* 1-2 Tbsp. water

- Put the beans, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil in a blender and blend until smooth.  You may have to add water to get the right consistency, and you will know the mixture is too thick if the blender is having trouble blending.  Taste for the ingredients, and add if necessary and to your taste.  I do not put salt because the garbanzos are already salted, but taste and add if you want.

- Pour the hummus on a serving plate, drain the  the black olives well, and place them however you want (presentation).  It is important to drain the olives because the black juice will stain the hummus if you don’t. 

- Drizzle the olive oil in swirls over the hummus, add grindings of black pepper and serve.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Recipes–Two Arugula Salads and Poached Pears in Red Wine

Here are more recipes which are particularly good.  Two feature arugula and one the King of All Desserts – Poached Pears in Red Wine

Smoked Fish, Arugula, and Watercress Salad

This is a delicious salad.  The combination of the sweet watercress and the spicy arugula with the smoky taste of the fish, combined with the fragrance of the chutney and the nuttiness of the pecans make it a winner. This recipe is good for two servings

* 1 lg. bunch watercress

* 1 lg. handful arugula (the baby arugula is best, for it is more tender; however the larger leaves often have more flavor.  I like to mix both in this salad

* 1/2 pack of smoked bluefish or trout, cut into 1” pieces

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 2 Tbsp. sweet mango chutney

* 1/2 cup roasted pecans (buy raw pecans, then roast them without oil over medium high heat in an iron skillet, browning with just a touch of black, but careful not to burn)

- Compose individual salad plates with the arugula and watercress

- Drizzle olive oil and balsamic over the greens

- Sprinkle the pecans over each plate

- Place the fish pieces on top of the salad

-  Distribute the chutney over the salad

- Add ground black pepper and serve

Arugula Salad with Figs, Almonds, and Bleu d’Auvergne Cheese

This combination is special – the spiciness of the arugula with the tangy saltiness of the cheese and the sweetness of the figs.  The Portuguese are big on the complementarity of sharp and fragrant cheese with fruit jams, and this is based on that.  This is for two servings

* 2 lg. handfuls arugula

* 1/2 cup almonds, toasted (roast the raw whole almonds in an iron skillet with no oil until they are browned, slightly black in spots.  Do not burn)

* 10 small Mission figs, or 5 large Turkish figs, halved

* 1/2 cup Bleu d’Auvergne (you can substitute Danish blue cheese, but it has a much stronger and saltier flavor.  A better substitute might be Stilton), cut/break into small pieces, but not crumbled

* 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1-2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 1/4 tsp. sesame oil

* 1 Tbsp. soy sauce

- Place the arugula on the plates

- Put the cheese and the almonds on the arugula

- Drizzle the olive oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, and balsamic over each plated salad (NOTE: the quantities listed above are approximate.  You want to be sure not to put too much dressing on the arugula.  It should be flavored but never soggy)

- Ground pepper and serve

Poached Pears in Red Wine

This is a superb dish, and the variations on it are many.  You can use cranberries, gooseberries, or rhubarb separately or together.  I prefer them in combination, but it really doesn’t matter how you combine them:

* 4 ripe, high flavor pears (like Comice), but any tasty pears will do

* 1/2 bottle red wine (this can be ordinary table wine, but not sweet wine)

* 1 lg. stick cinnamon

* 1/2 lg. orange rind

* 6-7 cloves

* 5-6 Tbsp. sugar

* 1 lg. handful (1 cup) cranberries, gooseberries, chopped (into 1” pieces) fresh rhubarb.  You will end up with 2 cups of fruit

* 1 lemon, juiced

-- Put the wine, sugar, lemon juice, orange rind, cinnamon, and cloves into a saucepan large enough so that the pears can stand up, are not too crowded but not too loose, and stir well

- Place the pears standing in the wine.  The pears should be about 3/4 covered

- Boil the wine and pears for about 15 minutes or until you can poke a fork easily into the flesh.  The pears should not be mushy nor too hard, but just so that there is no resistance to the fork.  Be sure to check the pears after 10 minutes.

- Remove the pears when they are done and set aside

- Reduce the liquid down to about1 cup more or less.  The reduced liquid should be thick, but loose enough to be a plentiful sauce.  Before reduction, taste the liquid for sugar, orange, etc.

- Pour the reduced liquid over the pears in a serving bowl.

- Chill and serve.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Characters

“This is an intelligence test”, said Bart H., handing us a paper and pencil. “See how long you can take to draw a straight line from one side of the paper to the other”

Bart had a theory that linked frontal lobes with intelligence – the bigger the better – and he had worked out a series of tests which would test for the size of frontal lobes and thus for intelligence; and this was one of them.  Bart, of course, knew he had large frontal lobes.  His forehead was very prominent (although not beetle-browed as he was quick to point out) and he had a receding hairline, so when he explained his theory, you knew he was talking about himself.

As you can imagine, most of us gave up on the straight line after five minutes, barely moving Bart’s intelligence meter past Cretin.  In any case he had it all wrong - big lobes and performance on this test were signs of stupidity.  Bart, however, was undeterred.  “I have taken two hours to draw the line”, he said, “and I could have gone on for much longer”.

He had another test which was in the form of a game – a game without rules which, if you played it well (he knew what the rules were), you had big lobes and you were intelligent.

“Your move”, Bart would begin sitting across the table which had the usual stray spoons, cigarettes, glasses; and if this were a good expatriate household, plenty of kitschy knick-knacks, Indian do-dads, cheap Siva knock-offs, and stray jewelry.   The game was to move any of the items on the table to any position; and successive moves would build on the previous one.  If you had two good players gradually an architectural space would emerge – gardens (leaves ripped off plants) and miniature multi-storied structures.  Pieces of Rajasthani mirror-work became windows, wooden matches became footbridges over moats of whisky in olive trays.  The best were multi-storied, multi-colored wonders, each level rising more precariously than before.  A game between two good players always ended with some kind of display on top – a delicately perched light filament tower, a flag of colored paper, a coke bottle top spinning on a matchstick. 

Regardless of Bart’s theories, the game was cool, and on one of my vacation trips to Paris I played it.  I was invited to dinner by a French friend whose living room table was perfect for the game.  It had as much clutter as the expat version, but the clutter was crystal, Egyptian colored glass perfume bottles, fluted single-rose vases, elegant antique jewelry.  I picked the guest whom I thought would be the most worthy opponent.  The construction was magnificent – the late evening sunlight caught the colored glass, perched high on Venetian snuff boxes. 

We built reefs, drawbridges, and cantilevered porches.  The structure got higher and higher, and we both knew that, with most pieces used and useable space narrowing at the top, the final move was soon to come.  We both eyed the prize, a Baccarat crystal tiny teacup, made for a precious 19th Century dollhouse.   When the time came, I took the cup and balanced it on the airiest of pedestals, thin twigs from a bonsai fir.  My hand was unsteady, my vision doubling from the absinthe and Pernod.  As I went to place the jewel, my hand grazed the gold Siennese earrings, which, hooked to the goose-feather quill, which was placed in the top of a Cartier pen; and the entire, articulated, delicate structure came crashing down, splintering glass and crystal, spilling whisky, ruining the table, the carpet, and the dinner.  “You win”, said my opponent.

I am not sure what happened to Bart after India.  Rumor had it that he was accepted into a PhD program to study brains somewhere in the Northwest; but few of us believed it.  Although his interest might have been some grounds for entry, his ideas were so cockamamie that we doubted any university would take him seriously.

Bart wasn’t the only eccentric in our group of about twenty Americans, administrating feeding programs in India.  There was Winston C., who had fallen so in love with Chile on his first overseas assignment, that he spoke to his wife and children only in Spanish (they were pure gringo like him); and was such a linguistic-cultural fantasist that he spoke to his German shepherd only in German, albeit a Hollywood version (raus, schnell). He made mate the traditional Chilean way, mashing the tea leaves down with a silver pestle in a traditional gourd, and affected a macho demeanor – a kind of a strut or swagger.  He was an eccentric and a total jerk.  His wife craved any kind of normal attention, and was a hungry and desperate lover.

Michael L, raised Dobermans in the compound of his house – the best expat house in all of India we agreed, cantilevered out over the Arabian Sea, a garden filled with jasmine, frangipani, and belladona, a planter’s verandah of teak and mahogany; a stable of servants to cook, serve, and garden.  The dogs, however, were Michael’s business.  Indians hated and feared dogs (I can only imagine the terror in the hearts of the servants as they entered the compound, lean and mean Dobermans slathering, barking, and foaming at their entrance), so he did all the work of feeding, grooming, and training.  He sold the Dobermans to other expats all over India who wanted dogs but did not want the hassle of importing them.   “No shiatsus ”, he would say to the disappointed wives of American diplomats.  “No small dogs. Just Dobermans”.

I worked the Bombay port and oversaw the importation of American surplus food destined for India’s children; so I could help Michael with the formalities of importing dogs from Australia.  Michael always talked of his dogs, smelled like dog, and we thought wanted to be more like the Dobermans he raised.  He was short, fat, and ugly; so the lean, muscular, confident, and aggressive dogs could very well have been his role model.

Barry S. ran a Free Love Inn, as he called it.  Anything goes chez Barry.  His dinners were legendary – great food, open bar, hash brownies, great looking women, wild, wet, and uninhibited sex.  I have always respected the Indians of that era, tolerating behavior which was as far from the norm or even the edges of the norm in their country as could be imagined.  Never did any of us ever worry about buying dope in the public market, dropping acid, carrying on and cavorting like satyrs.  Never were were censured, investigated, pressured.  The organization for which we worked had the same tolerant attitude, a live-and-let-live philosophy that was as far from the regimented, politically correct, and temperate times of today as you could imagine.

The grandest character of all was Lawrence G., a dandy from Philadelphia who shared nothing with the rest of us Sixties pseudo-hippies, adventurers, and secular missionaries, his colleagues.  He was cut from a Nicky Nork cloth – lots of silk suits and gold jewelry, aftershave, razor cuts, and an even tan.  He affected an Elegant Tough Guy persona – suave, smooth, with a whisper of violence;  and a Rudolph Valentino Ladies Man faux intimacy.  The programs in the Indian state where he was the Administrator were always the best, not because of his management acumen, professional commitment, or technical savvy; but because of his personal relationships with the women who ran the state.  In India caste always trumps sex (viz. Indira Gandhi who was elected because she was of the celestial class of Kashmiri Brahmins, not because of progressive politics), and the weight of a Communist government added to the female rolls of senior bureaucrats and politicians.

“Oh, Lawrence, what are you wearing today?”, said Shrimati Ghosh, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Welfare and in-charge of our feeding programs.

“Today is a mix-and-match day, Dr. Ghosh”, said Lawrence.  I am wearing an Armani silk, double-breasted, thinly pinstriped suit; a St. Laurent cream vellum shirt and light blue silk tie; and soft, kid glove  leather Santorini loafers (to give a slightly informal flair to my ensemble)”

“You forgot the accessories, Lawrence”, Dr. Ghosh went on.

“Ah yes, the accessories. Today I am wearing my Venetian hand-engraved gold cufflinks, a Versace silk foulard, and a hand-tooled Florentine leather belt.”

Of course we could only hear Lawrence’s side of the conversation, but enough of us had been with him during these calls, that it was not hard to decode the other side.

I admit I succumbed to the Lawrence G. allure, and when I visited Paris during my stay in India, I bought some stylish French clothes; but the road to success was not exactly an easy one.  I went into a well-known men’s store off the Rue de Rivoli, and said that I was looking for a sports jacket and pants to match.  I picked two or three jackets that I liked and tried them on.  Each one grabbed under the arms, was at least two inches short in the sleeves, and roomy around the middle.  The clerk shook his head, rolled his eyes, and went back to the racks for larger sizes.  They too pulled and grabbed, were too short in length, too full in girth.  He tried a third time, different couturier, different style, but with the same result.  With a Gallic shrug and shake of his head he said, “Perhaps Monsieur would be better served at an American clothing store, where they offer….”.  Here he hesitated, obviously carefully choosing his words. “…something more suited to the size…”  Again he hesitated. “….of your shoulders and arms”. 

It didn’t take much to decode and decipher his meaning: “In France we don’t make clothes for apes.  If you want a good fit, go to the Bronx Zoo”.

“Don’t be offended”, said my wife who had grown up in France. “The French are that way”; and as an added justification, “…They act that way with each other”. 

With her help, I kept my patience, bought a reasonably well-tailored jacket and pants, and a pair of shoes to match.  Here, there was no question of Gallic diffidence or couture arrogance.  Americans’ feet are simply bigger; but I wanted to look French, and, like most women, jammed my feet into stylish shoes at least two sizes too small.

I think I wore the outfit once back in India.  I was not squiring any Indian officials, nor did any of my father’s bella figura wear off on me; so it was back to kurta and chappals (although my sitar guru convinced me that I had to buy the new terelene pastel-colored kurtas with silver button studs).  I thought I was hot shit at Embassy parties where Sears shirts, high-water pants, and cordovans were the de rigeur fashion.

I still have the kurtas and silver studs, and whenever I see a young blond guy with a big forehead and receding hairline, I always think of Bart. H.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Nietzsche and Richard III

Having read all of Shakespeare’s Histories and the major Tragedies (Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra), I prefer the Histories because to me they best depict human nature and life itself.  As Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil (259):

…life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation….

The Histories show this life in its perpetual repetition, what Jan Kott has called the Grand Mechanism:

Shakespeare’s Histories…constitute an historical epic covering over one hundred years and divided into long chapters corresponding to reigns.  But when we read these chapters chronologically, following the sequence of reigns, we are struck by the thought that for Shakespeare history stands still.  Every chapter opens and closes at the same point. In every one of these plays, history turns full circle, returning to the point of departure.  These recurring and unchanging circles described by history are the successive kings’ reigns. (Shakespeare, Our Contemporary)

At the beginning of his chapter The Kings , Kott begins with a catalogue of the murders committed by Richard III:

* King Edward IV deposed Henry VI where he was murdered by Edward’s brothers Gloucester (Richard III) and Clarence.  A few months earlier the only son of Henry VI had been stabbed to death by Richard

* Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Edward IV, murdered in the Tower at Richard’s order.  Richard Duke of York Edward’s other son murdered on Richard’s order

* George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s brother murdered by Richard’s order

* The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s confidant, beheaded at Richard’s request

* Rivers and Gray, brothers to Edward’s Queen Elizabeth, murdered by Richard

* Lord Hastings beheaded by Richard on a charge of plotting

The case of Richard is particularly noteworthy because to me he embodies the character of Nietzsche’s ubermensch – someone ruled by absolute will, and beyond good and evil.  Although others in the Histories had their moments – Bolingbroke had Richard II executed; Henry VIII had his share of beheadings; King John at least tried to murder Arthur; etc. – none were so single-minded, without remorse (Richard quickly gets over his two minutes of reflection when visited by the ghosts of those he murdered), and as ruthlessly in pursuit of his goal as Richard. 

Nietzsche could have been talking about Richard when he continues the passage quoted above.  In a world of appropriation, injury, etc. there is only one way to act:

[The act] will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality, but because [the actor] is living and because life is simply the will to power (259)

In Nietzsche’s world, there are no higher values or morality, both created by “the herd”, and which only serve to constrain the individual and his will, and the realization of his self:

What they (the herd) would like to strive for with all their powers is their universal green pasture happiness, with security, lack of danger, comfort, and an easier life for everyone; the two songs and doctrines which they repeat most often are “equality of rights” and “sympathy for all that suffers” – and suffering itself they take for something that must be abolished.

Nietzsche’s man (“We opposite men”) was different. “His power of invention and simulation (his spirit) had to develop under prolonged pressure and constraint into refinement and audacity, his life-will had to be enhanced into an unconditional power-will” (44).

Why is Richard so attractive? and why does it remain one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays?  I think for two reasons: First and foremost because we know that we are watching real life. Despite the many centuries that have passed since the 1500s, nothing has changed; and Man is still the greedy, aggressive, acquisitive, and amoral animal he was then and before (Shakespeare’s Roman plays depict the same workings of Kott’s Grand Mechanism found in the Histories).  Richard, is no caricature – history confirms most of what he did - and Shakespeare creates his character to exaggerate this very human nature.

Second, although we may not admit it, we admire Nietzsche’s Superman.  In this very politically correct world, in which religion, morality, and the strictures enforced by both  dominate and reduce the individual to a flaccid, herd-following being, we would like to be Richard.  We would want to:

sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage [to a world where hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule are the conditions of life and must be present “and must therefore be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced” (23)

This fundamental principle of Nietzsche – if we beyond good and evil and simply take life as it is, then the will to action – any action - is the highest form of human expression.

No other character in Shakespeare’s Histories or Tragedies even comes close to this ideal.  Other kings and pretenders plot and murder, but not with Richard’s singularity of purpose.  Others become very human and reflective.  Richard II was the most poetic character in the Histories, but he was a weak king.  John was a weak king, following the dictates of his domineering mother, and his actions were often misguided.  Henry VI was also a weak king, marrying foolishly and giving up his lands, bungling his rule and crowned twice, then outmaneuvered by Edward and killed. Henry IV once he acceded to power became too concerned with, then too dependent on his son, Henry V.

Hamlet can’t make up his mind; and may be a tragic thinker-hero, but he is not the force of will that is Richard.  Nor Macbeth, riven with guilt.  Nor Othello, eaten alive by virulent jealousy.  Nor Brutus, Cassius, Antony, or Octavius.  Perhaps Cleopatra, but her scheming and manipulation are benign compared to that of Richard.

The other classic villains of Shakespeare – Edmund and Iago – also pale in comparison.  It is never clear what Edmund wants.  He is a womanizer, with some vague idea of garnering all the wealth of his father, Gloucester; and maybe sees that allying himself with Albany and Regan he might have even more power; but he misjudges everyone.  Iago is just a bad character, not great (he is a subaltern if that) with jealousy and revenge guiding his actions.  Nietzsche, by the way, states that revenge is a more violent but predictable action to restore the status quo.

Richard III is my hero.

 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra–Older Men and Younger Women

As with Othello, I have been perplexed with the question of why Antony falls so far off the rails because of Cleopatra.  He, like Othello, was a respected Roman general and statesmen (one of the triumvirs of the Empire), older and presumably mature enough to understand the danger of a woman like Cleopatra would be to his career – after all, she had bedded Julius Caesar, Pompey (in Shakespeare’s play, not in history), was known as the Temptress of the Nile and reputed to be a harlot; and in her theatricality, truth was never evident. 

Antony’s greatness was so renowned, that even his competitor, Octavius limns his praises while urging him to “leave thy lascivious wassails”.  He says, referring to Antony:

Thou didst drink

The stale of horses and the gilded puddle

Which beasts would cough at; thy palate then did deign

The roughest berry on the rudest hedge…..And all this

Was borne so like a soldier that they cheek

So much as lank’d not (I.4)

History reports her ambitious political nature, and her liaison with Caesar was at least partly due to her desire to stay on the throne of Egypt and not become subsumed within the Roman Empire, and to have a child by him (Caesarion) who would have the blood line to give him access to the thrones of Rome.  She misleads Antony into engaging Caesar by sea, when it is clear to his own soldiers and to Octavius that his real power is on land; and then tricks him in the actual the Battle of Actium, turning tail and fleeing from Octavius’ fleet, knowing that he – Antony – would follow her.  Although it is possible that she withdrew for some strategic reason, it is unlikely.  She gives no explanation, so we are forced to speculate.  However, Antony believes she tricked him and he calls her on it:

Cleo. O, my lord, my lord.

Forgive my fearful sails; I little thought

You would have follow’d

Ant. Egypt, thou knew’st too well

And thou shouldst tow me after.  O’re my spirit

The full supremacy thou knew’st, and that

Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods

Command me.

Her retreat is problematic in any case, as we will see later; for one has to assume that her relationship with Antony was as politically-based as was that with Caesar and Pompey – to extend and consolidate her empire (She succeeded at least partially by bearing his children as she did Caesar’s; and Antony made her absolute queen of Lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia before his demise).

So, why should Antony – in his early 50s at the time of this play (old certainly for Rome of 41 BC but also for Elizabethan England) – behave any different than older men in general?  There is no doubt that Shakespeare wanted to emphasize Antony’s age. His colleagues, Philo and Demetrius talk of his “dotage” in the first line of the play.  Antony himself refers to his dotage a few lines later.  Octavius refers to him as the “old ruffian” in III.11. Enobarbus calls him an “old lion”. Yet Cleopatra seems not to have aged at all since they met ten years before; but only added to her youthful beauty and sexuality. Therefore, not only was Antony the lover of a beautiful younger woman, but one who could, at the end of this life satisfy all his life’s fantasies, and desires – all of which become more important when the individual reality of them is a thing of the past.

Cleopatra was a man’s dream – reported to be very intelligent, extremely beautiful, the embodiment of an earthy sexuality untamed by convention, and as theatrical as they come.  Such theatricality, that tease of knowing and not knowing, is an added sexual tension. Antony eventually marries Caesar’s sister, Octavia, who, according to one of Caesar’s camp, hoping that the relationship will be the reason for peace and not further dissension, says that she is the perfect wife – beautiful, faithful, obedient, and young; but what they miss is this sexual tension in Cleopatra’s theatricality that is what makes her truly irresistible. Antony knows of her duplicity, real or feigned from his friend Enobarbus, who says, referring to her theatricality:

Enob.I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment.  I do think there is mettle in death which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying. 

Ant. She is cunning past man’s thought. (I.2)

Enobarbus in II.3 elaborates:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety: other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies.

And, of course, Cleopatra is not only a queen, but one who lives in an opulent splendor, clearly the kind of life Antony loves.  Many times in the play – before battles, after them – he calls for drinks, carousing, revelry. 

It is important also to remember that Julius Caesar was 31 years older than Cleopatra during their affair. The political alliance was all in Cleopatra’s favor.  Egypt did not represent a military threat.  Having children with her did not guarantee their accession – there was her brother/husband Ptolemy and her other brother who certainly wanted Caesarion out of the way.  I am speculating, of course and only slightly exaggerating for effect - age-unequal relationships have always been about women getting something concrete and men living out some younger fantasy.

He had to know that she was using him just like she used Caesar and Pompey; that she was manipulative and calculating; and that he was already on the outs with Lepidus and especially Octavious because of his dalliances with her.  Not only did he continue his relationship with her when the pressures from Rome made it clear that he was jeopardizing his reputation and his honor, he did it with a vengeance.

Did  Antony, really love Cleopatra? Yes, but only in that age-unequal way I have described above.  The Macbeths had a seemingly reasonable marriage – they at least wanted the same thing – but love? Othello was just insanely jealous that his young wife was sleeping around, so not love surely.  Julius Caesar and Brutus (in Julius Caesar) had good relationships with Calphurnia and Portia – at least they listened to them, more or less, but did the men love them?  I doubt it.  Caesar was gallivanting with Cleopatra; and Brutus was afflicted by an all-consuming sense of honor; and there was probably no room for love.   Shakespeare was not much for family love either in Lear, especially, or in the Histories when marriages were made for political reasons, and the women were always major actors in the Grand Machine or game of power and succession.

Since this final passionate and complex relationship with Cleopatra was certainly the high point in his life, it can be called love; but a conditional one. His botched suicide was not because of love for her, but because he lost honor in his military defeats, his indirect betrayal of Rome through neglect brought on by his slavishness to Cleopatra.  Love was the farthest from his mine.  Like Brutus, honor was all.  His “love” for Cleopatra was intense and complete, but very temporal, conditioned by his advanced years, love for an ideal fantasy which would last little longer.

What about Cleopatra?  Did she love Antony however you define the term.  I would say not.  First, she had a history of calculating, manipulating relationships with the greatest men of the time.  Second, she was successful in achieving at least limited political goals with Antony, and probably was satisfied with having his children as hedges for the future.  Third, her conversations with her servants, Mardian, Isas, and Charmian and Alexas in I.5 and later in II.4 reference to Antony are either bawdy or calculating.  Cleopatra, for example says, not so subtly referring to Antony’s weight on her, making love:

O, Charmian

Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?

Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?

O, happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony…(I.5)

Or:

Give me mine angle; we’ll to the river: there

My music playing far off, I will betray

Tawny-finn’d fishes; my bended hook shall pierce

Their slimy jaws; and as I draw them up

I’ll think them every one an Antony

And say, ‘Ah, ha! y’are caught’ (II.5)

As soon as Cleopatra saw the handwriting on the wall (the fall of Antony), she thinks about cutting a deal with Caesar.  As early as Act III.11 she says to Caesar’s messenger:

Most kind messenger,

Say to great Caesar this: in deputation

I kiss his conquering hand; tell him I am prompt

To lay my crown at his feet, and there to kneel.

Tell him from his all-obeying breath I hear

The doom of Egypt.

And later in V.2 after Antony’s death:

Pray you, tell him (Caesar)

I am his fortune’s vassal, and I send him

The greatness he has got.  I hourly learn

A doctrine of obedience, and would gladly

Look him I’ th’ face.

Antony apparently still is unaware of her duplicity; and when he gets wind of it, takes the lamest of apologies from Cleopatra:

Ah dear, if I be so,

From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,

And poison it in the source, and the first stone

Drop in my neck: as it determines, so

Dissolve my life…..(III.11)

“I am satisfied”, says Antony.

Did she really love Antony? After his death in her arms, she says:

All strange and terrible events are welcome

But comforts we despised; our size of sorrow,

Proportion’d to our cause, must be as great

As that which makes it.

Even at this moment when most lovers would be disconsolate, she is still playing the great stage actress, and in a long soliloquy in IV.11, 73-92 goes on about honor and the perception of it. Her death has nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet.  She commits suicide so she won’t be shipped to Rome, paraded before: “mechanic slaves with greasy aprons…in their thick breaths, Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded And forced to drink their vapor”; and then kept as a captive prize.  This is not about love, nor even honor – it is about theatricality, show, perceptions.

So Antony and Cleopatra loved each other in their own way, and that way might have been more similar than it looks.  His fantasies of a man at the end of his life obscured the political realities obvious to everyone else.  He was as theatrical as Cleopatra.  Cleopatra loved Antony in a theatrical way and a practical, determined political way. 

When Antony’s political end and death became clear, love and all his fantasies went out the window and he dies for honor. Cleopatra’s death has nothing to do with love or politics any more, but theatre, perceptions, and her own dramatic version of dignity.  

 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Recipes - Potato Salad

There are probably as many potato salad recipes as there are cooks, but I suppose it won’t hurt to put down a few more:

Classic Potato Salad

I had been trying to make a potato salad that tasted “original” – simple, familiar, more in the range of comfort food that more inventive display, and I finally found it, made by my mother’s caretaker.  The key ingredient? Sweet relish.

* 5-6 medium/large Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered

* 3 lg. Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 2 Tbsp. sour cream or whole milk yoghurt

* 1 Tbsp. mustard (any kind – I guess since this is original, it should be Gulden’s)

* 3 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish

- Boil the potatoes until a fork can be poked into them, but they should not be soft.  There will be some additional cooking once you take them off the stove and cool them, so they should be a bit firm to the touch.

- Drain the potatoes, and rinse them in very cold water 3-4 times to cool them off and stop the cooking.  Cut each of the quartered pieces in half.  Cooking too small pieces of potato is risky because they may cook too quickly and get soft, so I prefer the extra work at the end

- Mix the ingredients of the dressing in the bowl in which you are going to serve the potato salad, and add salt and pepper to taste

- Add the potatoes, mix well, and chill

Classic Potato Salad #2

This is the potato salad I always used to make when I was trying to figure out the key ingredients of “original” potato salad.  It is good and not sweet:

* 5-6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered

* 1/2 red onion, coarsely chopped

* 1 bunch parsley, chopped

* 1 Tbsp. capers

* 1 Tbsp. Maille mustard

* 3 Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 2 Tbsp. sour cream or while milk yoghurt

* 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

* 1 Tbsp. sugar

- As above, quarter, boil potatoes until tender but not soft

- Drain 3-4 times with cold water, drain, and cut each quarter in half

- Mix dressing ingredients in serving bowl and mix well

- Add potatoes and onion

- Mix well, chill in refrigerator, and serve

Potato Salad with Spices and Chutney

This takes the basic ingredients – mayo, mustard, sour cream or yoghurt – but adds a lot of different spices.  The unusual combination of sweet mango chutney, tuna, and anchovy – salt and sweet - gives a particularly interesting flavor

* 5-6 medium/large Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered

* 2-3 Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 2 Tbsp. sour cream or whole milk yoghurt

* 1 Tbsp. Maille mustard (or other brand of spice French style mustard)

* 1/2 lemon, squeezed juice

* 1 medium bunch chopped parsley

* 1 Tbsp. sweet mango chutney (better to use brands from Asian stores rather than ordinary supermarket chutney

* 1/2 can flat anchovies, crushed

* 1/2 can tuna, crushed

* 1 tsp. carroway seeds, crushed in mortar

* 1 tsp. celery seeds

* 1 small clove garlic, finely chopped

* 1/2 red onion

* 1 Tbsp. honey

- Boil potatoes, cooked until you can poke through with a fork, but with some resistance.  They will continue to cook until fully cooled so they should be firm

- Rinse in very cold water 3-4 times, drain well

- Cut each piece in half.  It is better to do this after cooking, because too small pieces can overcook easily

- Mix all dressing ingredients together, add potatoes; season with salt and pepper to taste

- Put in refrigerator to chill

Potato and Onion Salad

This is a variation of the above.  The sherry, coriander, and chutney give it a great taste

* 1 lg. sweet onion; 1 lg. red onion, chopped coarsely

* 5-6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, with skin and quartered

* 3 Tbsp. sweet mango chutney (better brands can be found at Asian stores)

* 2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar (this is not always available or easy to find, so you can substitute with 1 Tbsp. Balsamic Vinegar and 1 Tbsp. dry (Amontillado) sherry

* 1 lg. bunch fresh coriander leaves, chopped

* 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 2 Tbsp. sour cream or whole milk yoghurt

- Boil the potatoes, careful not to overcook.  You should be able to poke a fork in easily but feeling a little resistance.  They will continue to cook until you cool them well.

- Drain and rinse in cold water 3-4 times until cool

- Cut each quarter in half (better to do this after cooking, for too small pieces have a tendency to get overcooked quickly)

- Mix all dressing ingredients in a serving bowl, and add the potatoes

- Mix all well, chill in refrigerator

Potato Salad with Basil, Cajun and Bay Spice, and Honey

The unusual combination of these key ingredients plus the more traditional mayo and mustard, give the salad a great taste:

* 5-6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered, skin on

* 2 lg. Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 2 lg. Tbsp. sour cream or whole milk yoghurt

* 1 lg. Tbsp. Maille mustard

* 1 medium coarsely chopped red onion

* 6 large black olives, halved

* 1 Tbsp. Balsamic vinegar

* 1/4 squeezed lemon juice

* 1 Tbsp. honey

* 2 tsp. Cajun Spice (any kind – Blackened Fish, Redfish, any of Prud’homme brand)

* 2 tsp. Bay spice

* 1 Tbsp. dry basil flakes

* 1 small bunch parsley, chopped

- Boil, drain, cool, halve the potatoes as in the above recipes

- Mix all spices except onions

- Add onions and potatoes, mix all well

- Chill in refrigerator, serve, garnished with parsley, ground black pepper

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Recipes–More Vegetarian Dishes

I am not a vegetarian and never will be.  I love seafood too much to ever give up the delicacies of Belons, Willapa Bays, Appalachicola Sweets, Blue Points, and the marvelous harvest of PEI, Cape Cod, RI, and Connecticut.  I cooked vegetarian for about five years, during the time my son ate no animal products; but this was not at all a stretch, for I had cooked “vegetarian” dishes all my life, although I never thought of them as such.  Much of Italian cooking is vegetarian, and I have posted many of my favorites – Spaghetti with Peas, Pasta with Red Pepper and Cream, Spaghetti al oilo, aglio, e peperoncino, Spaghetti with garlic and basil, and many more; and after 5 years living in India, I picked up a lot of excellent and traditional vegetarian recipes:

Alu Ghobi (Cauliflower and Potatoes)

This is a classic Indian vegetarian recipe, and very simple indeed.  The spice mix which I detail below can be used as the basis for any vegetarian recipe – mixed curry (carrots, cabbage, potatoes, peas), alu mattar, potatoes and peas, okra, bhindi (eggplant), etc. The recipe calls for only whole spices, and although there are very good curry powders available (especially Madras Curry Powder), there is nothing like the mix of 10 or more spices…and getting the added treat of biting down on a whole spice!

* 5 medium Yukon gold potatoes, quartered

* 1/2 lg. head cauliflower, steamed, trimmed so only the florets are left

3-4 Tbsp. olive oil

* 4-5 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped

* 1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

* 10 whole cloves

* 10 whole peppercorns

* Mortar-pounded whole spices: coriander, fennel, cardamom, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds

* 1 tsp. poppy seeds

* 2 tsp. ground cumin

* 3 bay leaves

* 4-5 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 1/4 stick cinnamon

- Sautee the spices in the olive oil for about 5 minutes or until the mustard seeds begin to pop.  You want the garlic to brown, but NOT blacken, so a lot of attention is required here.

- Parboil the potatoes and the cauliflower

- Cut and trim so that the quartered potatoes are halved; and the cauliflower trimmed, as above, to leave the florets

- Add the vegetables to the spice mix, toss, simmer for about 15 minutes to combine the spices and the vegetables.

- Garnish with fresh coriander, serve.

Curried carrots with figs and apricots

Carrots are an OK vegetable, but nothing exciting, so the mix and spicing are critical.  This recipe, I think, give the oomph that carrots require:

* 2 lg. bunches carrots – the best are the organic, farmers market carrots, all twisted in weird shapes, but with a strong, fragrant flavor of carrots – cut into 2” pieces

* 3 lg. dried figs (I prefer the large Turkish figs which you can buy at Whole Foods – they should have crystals of sugar on the outside), coarsely chopped

* 3 lg. dried apricots, coarsely chopped

* 1/2 cup pine nuts, dry roasted\

* 1 – 2 Tbsp. curry powder (I prefer Madras style, a little hotter, but any type is ok)

* 2 Tbsp. European style unsalted butter

* 1 bunch fresh coriander, coarsely chopped

* 1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

* 2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

* 2-3 shakes hot pepper flakes

- Boil the carrots until tender, drain, reserve

- Sautee the garlic, hot pepper, and ginger in butter for about 5 minutes, careful not to burn

- Add figs, apricots, and pine nuts and sautee for about 5 minutes

- Add the carrots, mix well, cook for 5 minutes

- Garnish with fresh coriander, pepper

- Serve

Curried Spinach

* 1 lb. fresh spinach, thoroughly washed, steamed, drained, and chopped

* 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds, pounded in mortar

* 1 Tbsp. fenugreek seeds, pounded in mortar

* 2 tsp. poppy seeds

* 1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

* 3 cloves chopped fresh garlic

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 3-4 Tbsp. olive oil

- Steam, chop spinach.  Be sure to squeeze all water out of the spinach

- Sautee all the spices until the garlic is brown

- Add the spinach, mix well, add salt and pepper to taste.

Spinach with Parmesan

* 1 lb. fresh spinach, steamed and chopped

* 3-4 Tbsp. freshly grated Italian parmesan cheese

* 2 lg. cloves garlic, smashed

* 2 lg. Tbsp. unsalted European butter

* 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

* 1 Tbsp. flour

* 1 cup milk

- Steam the spinach, chop, drain, being sure most water is removed

- Sautee the garlic and butter\

- Add the flour and milk to make a roux

- Add the spinach and the grated parmesan and mix well

- Adjust for more milk, parmesan, salt pepper, as needed

- Serve

Yam and Squash Puree

* 2 yams (or sweet potatoes)

* 1 winter squash (substitute Acorn or other squash; but the winter farmers market squashes, like Hubbard, are much, much better)

* 1 tart apple (Granny Smith type), quartered

* orange rind from 1/2 medium orange

* lemon rind from 1/2 medium lemon

* 2 Tbsp. maple syrup, preferable the lower grade, darker, less processed syrup

* 1/2 cup cream

* 3-4 Tbsp. sherry (Amontillado preferred)

- Bake the squash and yams at 450F for about 1 hr. or until soft

- Boil the apples until soft

- Put the squash, peeled yams, and apples in a blender and puree, adding the cream, sherry, and maple syrup.  Be sure to taste and then adjust for proportions, adding salt, pepper

- Serve

LOTS MORE TO COME…..

Movies–Werner Herzog

My favorite film director is Werner Herzog.  There is no director working to day with such versatility, creativity, incessant curiosity, and willingness to take risks than Herzog.  His early films – Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Kaspar Hauser, and Nosferatu – are brilliant in conception, design, and production. The first scene of Aguirre where Herzog shoots with a long lens a foot-caravan of Indians making their way down a high Andean mountain, sometimes disappearing in the mist, is hypnotizing.  The simple lines of the electronic score of Popul Vuh, his frequent collaborator, are as sinuous and mysterious as the Indian caravan. 

These three films have similar quiet, measured, graceful performances; and that of Klaus Kinski as Dracula is a perfect example.  His slow, controlled movements; and the ballet of his elegant, long, and tapered fingers are an integral part of the overall feeling of the film.  In Herzog’s early films there is no hurry, no quick cuts, no impatience.  Dracula’s silent, long seduction of Lucy as she tries to keep him until the cock crows, is a masterpiece of dignity and grace.  There is little dialogue in Kaspar Hauser but the pantomime of him in his prison cellar is as brilliant pantomime as that in Nosferatu.

In all three films nature is not a backdrop, but a character in the film.  As Jonathan Harker makes his way through the Transylvanian mountains, Herzog films the movement of the clouds for minutes (an eternity in modern cinema).  The landscape is brooding, frightening, and warning, and thus adds to the anticipation of and creation of a sense of evil that is just beyond the pass. In Aguirre, the jungle and the mountains are even more central to the story than the wild, eccentric Aguirre, played also by Klaus Kinski. Nature has a similarly prominent role in Heart of Glass, White Diamond, and Grizzly Man.  The first, hypnotic scenes are of the rolling of cloud banks over the mountains, and they set the tone for the rest of the film whose actors have all been hypnotized by Herzog.

Kaspar Hauser is the story of a wild child, locked in a cellar his whole life, then mysteriously released at left alone as a young adult by his captor in a town square in Bavaria.  It is a beautiful story of innocence, intelligence, insight and humor, following the development of Hauser from that first moment of total ignorance of the world to a wise and perplexed adult, and then to his tragic and unexplained death. The actor who played Kaspar, Bruno S., was chosen by Herzog because he, too, had been locked in a cellar for years.  His performance, much of it without words, is expressive, interpretive pantomime.  The scenes of him just before release from his cellar, playing with his one diversion, a toy horse, grunting and snorting as he pushes it back and forth, show his frustration, and numbing isolation. 

There are many silent, long shots in the movie.  One of the most striking is when his captor has taken him out to a grassy promontory, overlooking a misty valley.  He has dressed him for the first time and is teaching him how to walk.  When the attempt is over, the captor, dressed in a black cape and hat, sits with his back to Kaspar who is lying motionless and exhausted behind him in the grass.  The camera is on them for at least a full minute or more – an eternity in modern film.  This technique, as we will see below, is characteristic of Herzog.

As he gains words and “civilization”, he is perplexed by what he sees.  The scene with the Methodist minister who tries to educate him in Christian thinking is hilarious.  The Minister cruelly presents Kaspar with a problem of logic, which he assumes Kaspar will not be able to answer.  Kaspar does answer it, but not within the precise bounds of logic.  “That is the wrong answer”, shouts the Minister.  “It is not the logical answer”.  Kaspar turns his head in amazement and disgust.

Although the film is quiet, with little dialogue and much silence, it is never staged; and the bits of dialogue from Kaspar as he is learning language from the young girl in the house where he is staying are hilarious.  Most of the actors in the film are non-professionals, but Herzog elicits sensitive professional performances.

Aguirre is the story of Pizarro’s expedition through the Amazon to find the treasures of the Incas.  Like Herzog’s other movies, there is little dialogue; but Kinski’s twisted, half-crippled, mad movements and expressions are enough.  He and his crew are totallyalone in the vast, dense jungle.  The only sounds are the whistling of jungle birds and the movement of water.  Aguirre becomes totally mad, and the final scene on the raft, floating down the river with hundreds of rats crawling over it and him is a silent display of Aguirre’s madness and the power of the jungle.  One of the most striking and unforgettable scenes of Nosferatu is the scene where Dracula has let loose thousands of rats and they scurry all through the town square as people are dancing, eating, and drinking knowing they will soon die of the plague.  Herzog actually bought the rats, colored them all white for the effect he wanted, and negotiated with the town assuring them that he would control the animals.

Nosferatu is perhaps my favorite films, because it brings together all the themes and film techniques for which he is known.  The performance of Klaus Kinski is remarkable.  There are many versions and retelling of the Dracula myth, and Herzog wanted to make his Dracula very human; and Kinski relates the loneliness of never dying, the sexual desire that is never satisfied, and the personal intimacy and friendship he craves.  Of course, Herzog is true to the myth and Dracula is evil, but Kinski’s interpretation adds dimension and feeling.  It is all the more remarkable that Herzog got such a measured and controlled performance from Kinski who, Herzog describes in his film My Best Fiend, is crazy.  His rants on the jungle sets of Fitzcarraldo so provoked the Indians who were acting in the film, that they went to Herzog and asked him if he wanted them to kill Kinski.  Herzog in his film admits that he thought about it.

Fitzcarraldo is best remembered for Herzog’s hauling a river steamer over the mountains from one Amazon river to another.  The scenes in the movie – like all Herzog’s – are not staged or manipulated.  The Indians hauling this enormous ship up a steep incline in dense jungle were real.   The movie is also about another of Herzog’s themes – eccentricity, vision, ambition – that he illustrates in this documentaries (White Diamond, Grizzly Man). Fitzcarraldo wants to build an opera house in the jungle, and the movie is about this illusion, ambition, and desire.  Aguirre had the same drive and mad ambition.  Dracula is an a way cast from the same mold.   The relationship between Kinski and Claudia Cardinale was central to the movie, and in fact helped to hold it together.  Kinski the wild man had never had such a professional relationship – he was as mad as the characters he played – but he and Cardinale found something very intimate in their relationship and that helped to calm the roiled waters of the restive Indians and the constant fighting between Kinski and Herzog.

Heart of Glass is based on a myth that Herzog had heard growing up there:

The setting is an 18th century Bavarian town with a glass blowing factory which produces a brilliant red "ruby glass." When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost, and the town gradually sinks into disorder and madness. The main character is Hias, a seer from the hills, who speaks prophecy to the townspeople. – Wikipedia.

For the film Herzog hypnotized every actor (all non-professionals, typical of Herzog’s films) except the seer, and the result exaggerates the dullness and ignorance of the peasantry that Herzog wants to illustrate.  The film is therefore about an eccentric and visionary; has nature as a central character (see above); and has the same quiet, often silent passages that give Herzog’s film eloquence.

A technique that Herzog uses in his early films to highlight character development, mood, and theme, is to have long, unedited tracking shots. His shots can go on for over two minutes, an eternity for modern film-making.  In Nosferatu, when Jonathan Harker and his wife walk along the beach before he sets off to Transylvania, Herzog films them from behind, walking away from the camera. Herzog does not follow them, but lets them recede into the distance; nor does he ever cut to a frontal view.  The emptiness of the cold, Northern beach, their solitude and slow walk shows clearly their love, her fear, and their intimacy.  Herzog’s opening shots in Heart of Glass of the rolling cloud banks are also long and unedited, and as above, set the tone for the hypnotic feel of the film.  In fact, Herzog in his commentary said that he hoped that these long opening shots would hypnotize the audience.  Long shots of the mountains and clouds in Nosferatu are also essential to the story.  There are many such long shots of Kinski in Aguirre (and one where he does the “Kinski Turn”, where the actor pops up into camera range quickly and suddenly from below the camera.  This theatrical trick helped, particularly in Aguirre to illustrate his growing madness)

Herzog’s documentaries of people – most importantly White Diamond and Grizzly Man – have both the themes of eccentric ambition and obsession and the importance of nature as a character.  Dorrington, the inventor/engineer of  Diamond is a good man – he appears honest, sincere, and dedicated; so his eccentricity is presented within a very human frame.  The depth of that humanity is revealed by his account of the death of his partner in an accident where a balloon of his crashed – an accident for which he holds himself responsible.  His obsession to fly, therefore, is always framed in the guilt that he feels, so the tension and conflict is always apparent.  As a result, the film is very complex.   Nature and Indian life, featured in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are also shown in Diamond.  Herzog, perhaps with a bit too much self importance (one of my few negative comments about him, but which applies to his later documentaries as well) when he refuses to show the inside of the caves along the sheer walls of a cliff which supposedly house the spirits of the Indians he is filming.

The story of Timothy Treadwell is well-known.  For years he spent summers in Alaska living “with” the grizzlies; and ended up getting eaten, along with his girlfriend, by one.  He was less careless than obsessed with his conviction that with enough proximity and understanding, he could actually become a bear-human.  He felt that as he grew closer to them, the danger would be less.  On the other hand, he talks to the camera of the true animal nature of the bears who would kill him in an instant.  It is this conflict and the illusions that sustained Treadwell which make the film compelling.

His films Land of Silence and Darkness, about deaf and blind people; and Even Dwarfs Started Small are another documentary form Herzog has with the unusual forms of human beings.  They are short, sensitive, a bit self-important, not my favorites, but essential to understanding his whole body of work.

His lyrical films – especially Lessons of Darkness, shot in Iraq after the first Gulf War, but also Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (which I have not yet seen) are all but silent.  Lessons shows the burning oil wells of the desert, the oil slicks, and carcasses of bombed vehicles with a visual poetry; and Encounters does the same with the translucent beauty of the Antarctic.  These films are totally unlike his others, except for the centrality of nature and/or the natural world.  In Encounters this world has been distorted by the War, but in it Herzog finds beauty and poetry.  Both are incredible films.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: Beaches I

On my first day in India in December 1968, I walked around the Gateway of India overlooking the Arabian Sea and knew I had made the right choice.  Although I had to wonder as we drove in from the airport past miles of slums fetid with shit-smell and garbage, flimsy rag hutments lining the road, huge cement pipes waiting for installation which were used as dwellings – long, big-circumference horizontal slums, I eventually saw the apartment towers of Bombay, and knew that I was not in for two years of filth and pestilence.  I went to India because I wanted to travel, an urge that had started many years before with my first contact with a French foreign exchange student at my country day school.  He was irrepressibly – and now that I look back – insufferably French; but his was the reality that my French II Grammar and scenes of the CafĂ© des Deux Magots lacked; and with his European-cut clothes, mangled English, and long hair, I knew I was hooked.

Another way to look at it, said a good friend and colleague in Bombay, was that we early “development” travellers were offspring of the missionaries who went off to help in the colonization of the Third World – they too went with an overt mission, but at heart were young adventurers fleeing the steel mills, flat and empty farmlands, and  isolated towns from Plainville to the Manitoba border; and, he added, “Peace Corps Volunteers are carefully vetted and chosen for a bus driver mentality – not smart enough to have their minds wander off the little white line; smart enough to right the bus if it does drift”.  We were different – ordinary passports, chosen because of a selection algorithm that was as random as it was genius.  We were a bunch of dopers, mad scientists, Korean War vets, and dog lovers who all were missionaries and foreign legionnaires.

So there I was, overlooking the Arabian Sea, surrounded by hawkers, strollers, beggars, touts, and layabouts, shit-eating grin on my face – “How could I be so lucky?”.  There were some few doubts that crept into this panorama of exotic India.  I saw everyone spitting red and, thanks to prejudice, bad or misinformation, was convinced that the whole country had TB; but these passed quickly as I moved into my flat on the 16th, top, terrace floor of Mt. Unique on Peddar Road.  The apartment was breezy and the view spectacular.  I could see the Sea, Nariman Point, Victoria Station, and the Towers of Silence.  In December, the night breeze was still cool, and had the fragrance – or pungency – of Bombay.  I didn’t care what the night breezes brought in from the city.  I was only happy to be there.

I had a similar experience in Port-au-Prince in the 80s.  I stayed at the Splendide Hotel, half-way up the mountain to Petionville and a ten minute walk from the Olaffson.  The Splendide was an old Victorian hotel, with a long verandah overlooking the entrance and the drive; balustrades on the top floor with a view over the city out to the harbor.  Most nights of the year there was a breeze from the mountains and with it the sounds of the voodoo tom-toms.  It was again the same feeling I had in India – how could I be so lucky to be in such an exotic, romantic place – and this being the days of the Duvaliers, a peaceful, crime-free city.  I worked little, following the rhythms of the Haitians – come in at 10, go home at 1, have a civilized lunch, siesta, drinks at the Olaffson and a three-star French meal in Petionville.  It was one of the places in the world – Bucharest and San Salvador – where not only did nothing go wrong, everything went right beyond my expectations.  In all three places, there was love, superb food, beaches or mountains, and the excitement of knowing that this would all pass.  Haiti could never remain the Duvalier Haiti; Bucharest would soon lose its old-world charm and join the EU; and El Salvador would turn from dynamic, modern/old city into a crime nightmare, fueled by ex-combatants in the civil war who only knew how to kill.

My first Indian beach was Chowpatty Beach, a short strip of sand and palm trees in the middle of the city, more of a city block than a beach.  In the evening it was the place for Indians to escape the stifling heat of their apartments and stroll with their families, eat bhel puri, nuts, and sweets.  The sea was dead there, grey, stagnant, and empty; but at least for the Indians it was a respite and certainly a consolation.

My first real Indian beach was Juhu Beach, out towards the airport.  To get there you had to drive past all the Indian clothing mills of the industrialists who made Bombay – Tata, Gwalior, Modi – and then past the goat-stinking Muslim area around the Mosque.  To this day I cannot eat goat cheese because of that rancid, putrid, gagging smell; but perhaps the sight of the Arabian Sea was all that much more fresh and open because of it.  The hotel/restaurant was modern, catered to the well-to-do of Bombay and served lobster thermidor, baked pompano, and great desserts.  More importantly, the restaurant was on a large patio right at beach edge, the tables shaded by big umbrellas, and even in summer the intense heat was moderated by a light sea breeze.  The beach itself was nasty – it was like Chowpatty, but more upscale; and there were camel and donkey rides, pin-wheel hawkers, nut-wallahs, and sweets.  The air in winter was clear and bright, the colors intense, and the whole experience very Mediterranean.  I loved it. As the winter faded, so did the colors, even with the breeze clouded in a hot haze, but it was getting out of the city, and we went there every weekend.

The beaches at Kovalam and Goa were more European  beaches – that is, they were fairly empty except for local fishermen.  They were open, the water was swimmable (unlike the waters off of Bombay where the sewage outfalls were not far from the beach), and it felt like a beach.  The beach at Panjim (the Portuguese name, later changed to Panaji) was the hippy beach.  There was a nudist end to it, and for clothes to come into town the hippies wore the same g-strings as the fishermen.  The boys strolled down the main market streets of the town, barefooted, long, matted hair, and a ball-pouch and a g-string pulled tight up the crack.  At first the local residents of Panjim, as many communities in India at that time, were very tolerant of the new foreigners.  There was enough craziness in India to go around, and these white outcastes didn’t belong to any social code or Vedic stricture anyway; but the g-strings did it.  The hippies were dressed and acting like the lowest-caste of Indian – these wealthy Americans, Germans, and French, who could go back to their life of luxury at any time, imitated those who were barely tolerated, marginalized, and abused.  The paradox, the contradiction between these privileged foreigners and the fisherman finally broke the idyll.  They were sent packing and the Indians reclaimed their beach.

I remember little about the beaches at Puri in Orissa, except that they fit my idea of a beach – big waves, pounding surf, empty, white sand beaches, palm trees, and a stiff salty sea breeze.  You couldn’t swim there, however, for the undertow was among the worst in India, a great sucking force that no one braved. The beach was too desolate, somehow, to set up an umbrella and watch the rising sun – even if you could because any place in India that looked desolate and uninhabited was not; and within minutes you would be surrounded by curious children and horny teenagers.

The only time I ever really lost it was at a beach paradise near Galle, the southernmost town of Sri Lanka, home to tea planters who came down for Sunday curry at the hotel where we stayed.  These mestizos, a mix of Dutch, Indian, and whatever else, Indonesian, Malaysian, ran the plantations up the slopes, kept to themselves, but enjoyed the meals and drinks at the hotel.  It was a great place in the old British style – all mahogany and teak, planter chairs on long verandahs, sun shades, Tamil bearers, a delight.  The beach which was affiliated with the hotel was about an hour’s ride.  It was an idyll – turquouise waters, sugar sand beaches rimmed with palm trees, puffy white clouds, heaven.  However, it was someone’s home, and they were curious about these white foreigners in scant clothing broiling in the sun.  The ringed our little beach patch within about three feet, hunkered down and staring.  After almost two years of this invasiveness, Eve-teasing, and worse, I jumped up, grabbed one of the boys, pushed him down to the water, trembling and enraged. He shouted, “This is our home”; and I realized my stupidity, and walked away.  By that time the rest of his friends were letting the air out of our tires and things were getting very uncomfortable.  On half-aired tires, we drove off.  A beach idyll that went wrong, badly wrong.

Another fabulous beach was called Batu Feringhi, or Foreigner’s Beach about 10 miles outside of Penang.  It was a real resort, old style – cement block hotel, basic amenities, long sand beach, warm waters, and all foreigners.  The food was exceptional as it was back in town – Tamil, Chinese, Malaysian food, fresh, spicy, delicious.  Only after a couple of days there did an old Aussie tell us, “Watch out for them sea snakes.  Sea snakes’ll get you”.  One of the most poisonous of all snakes or all things.  Watching out for them in the water made it a lot less appealing. 

MORE ON THE BEACHES OF AFRICA, THE CARIBBEAN; AND THE RIVERS ALL OVER, NEXT…..

Doing Good and Living Well–Eating, Drinking, and Dancing in Africa

The first African country I visited was Mauritania, perhaps not as African as Mali or Kenya, but more so than Tunisia or Egypt because of its black belt along the Senegal River, the border with Senegal.   One of my favorite stories of my time in Mauritania is about a famous World Bank project designed to build two dams on this River, providing water to the deltas on both sides and therefore giving agricultural fertility to the black Africans who lived there and who for centuries had been enslaved by the northern nomadic Moors.  Slavery still existed in 1978 when I first visited and was only criminalized in 2007, and the World Bank felt that a direct and deliberate investment in the black population would redress the economic and social imbalances in the country, and by so doing effect a de facto end to slavery.

This of course didn’t happen.  Once the dams had been built, water provided, and agricultural productivity improved, the Moors simply took over the land, and the black Africans remained to work it.  The dams were a windfall for the Moors.  It was not a case of unintended development; just illusionary development planning.  As often happened in large projects and small, mission, desire, and ideology gummed up the works, and projects either failed from their original purpose or failed entirely.

One of my very first meals in Africa was a picnic on an Atlantic beach near Nouakchott.  Mauritania has an Atlantic coastline as long as North America’s, and if you count the 3000 miles or so across the Sahara to the Arabian Sea, the worlds biggest beach.  The outing was organized by M. Diouf, a Senegalese from St. Louis who had been one of France’s “chosen” Africans – Africans by dint of family, social class, intelligence, French language and orientation, selected as honorary French citizens, sent to France for their education.  It was a kind of ex post facto justification that colonization and the famous mission civiliatrice (mission to civilize Africans, i.e., Westernize them, and especially make them as French as an African could every hope to be). 

Nouakchott was well provisioned with French products to serve the fairly sizeable French community that ran the ports, many agencies of government, hotels, restaurants, and shops.  There was Camembert, jambon de Parme, salami, pate, lettuce, wine, and baguettes.  The baguettes, done in traditional ovens according to old French recipes, were far better than you could get in Paris whose bakers had begun to cut down on ingredients, speed up the process, and in general modernize.

The picnic started well.  Of course there was no one on the beach, the day was bright, clear, and pleasantly cool, and the waves and light salt spray made it feel like home.  We helped M. Diouf spread the blanket and array the food.  We sat down, and hungry after a long and early morning of teamwork (we were part of a UN team in Mauritania to assess the health system), tucked in.  I remember hacking off a big chunk of Camembert and slathering it a piece of baguette, and swilling it down with a glass of Bordeaux.  Another American colleague made himself a big salami, lettuce and tomato, and cheese sandwich on a baguette, slathered with mayonnaise. 

This display of American barbarity was too much for M.Diouf. “Mais non!”, he exclaimed. “Non, non, non, non”.  Cheese was never to be eaten as a first course; and it was inconceivable to eat a salami, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise sandwich.  Sandwich de saucisson, by all means; but never with anything but French butter.  The mission civilatrice not only had worked, but obviously had worked very, very well.

To be fair, M. Diouf came by his pro forma food preferences quite naturally.  On a trip to France, we had visited good friends who lived in a region in the southwest of France.   They organized a picnic which we would eat in the mountains near their house.  They could forage for wild mushrooms, and then we would eat.  They would get everything ready if only we could put together the silverware and buy some bread in the village.

The day was cool and fresh, and the woods where the mushrooms grew were scented with pine and old forest trees.  Robert and Diane romped through the woods like children, yelping with excitement when either one found a mushroom.  The picnic was much higher up the mountain, in a grassy glade overlooking the valley.  The blanket spread, the food laid out, all of us ready to tuck in; but before we could, Diane gave out a shocked and offended wail just like M. Diouf – “O, non, non, non, non, non!”  We had brought the wrong kind of forks and there was not enough bread.  The French, I decided, had internalized some ratio of bread to food which was calibrated for each type of food, because after one quick look at the paltry two baguettes we had bought (of course we thought that two big baguettes were way too much bread but we bought them anyway) and the array of food she had prepared, Diane knew that it was all wrong.  The picnic had been ruined. 

This episode, however, was minor compared to The Pigs’ Feet, a story retold to this day by our family.  On another trip to visit Robert and Diane, we brought our two children, aged about eight and ten, and our dog.  Robert’s mother, La Duchesse de Manon, had come down from her chateau  to spend time with her family.  Our children spoke no French, but Diane, Robert, and La Duchesse no English, so all conversation was in French.  Our children were very patient and sat quietly as we all chatted and laughed.

Diane was preparing a regional specialty – pieds de cochon, pigs feet, and Robert had gone to a special butcher 20 miles away to get what were considered the very best.  Diane exclaimed with pleasure when she saw them, and immediately started cooking them in a fragrant broth she had prepared while Robert was in Blesson.  They would take all day to simmer and would be ready for a seven o’clock dinner.  We couldn’t wait, we said.

At seven, we all sat down to dinner for our first course, a delicious mushroom soup from wild mushrooms that Robert had collected on the mountain.  Our children sat quietly and patiently at the table, eating their soup.  That morning, La Duchesse had commented to us how well-behaved our children were – a left-handed compliment because of course she believed that all American children were little barbarians.  The “compliment” was especially meaningful because in the aristocratic, royal milieu from which La Duchesse came, children were not even seen, let alone seen but not heard.  Robert had told us that he and his sister were brought into his mother’s sitting room in the morning to give her a little peck on the cheek before heading off with the nanny for the rest of the day.  Little did La Duchesse know that the reason that our children were so quiet was because they didn’t understand a a word of French.

After the first course dishes were cleared and new ones set, Diane brought in the piece de resistance, the pieds de cochon.  All the adults smiled in anticipation.  She dramatically lifted the lid to show off her creation.  The pigs trotters were sticking straight up, hoof first out of a gummy, viscous liquid.  That did it. My son blurted to his sister – “Liddy, look at that!  Pigs legs, disgusting, yeccchhhh…and what are they floating in?”

“Oh, how gross”, his sister replied.  “Beyond disgusting.  I am NOT eating that.  No way.  Never”.

The table was completely silent.  La Duchess looked at our children in dismay, then at her disappointed daughter-in-law, then with a knowing, censuring smile to us.  Although she did not understand English, she knew exactly what the children had sad.  She had been right all along.  Little barbarians.  And of course barbarian parents from a barbarian country.  The only member of our family who had behaved properly was the dog.

“Please eat them”, my wife pleaded.  “They are really very good”, and she put one trotter on each of their plates.

“There’s nothing but fat and gristle hanging off them”, my daughter said.

“But that’s the best part”, replied my wife.  More groans.  My son pushed and picked at the trotter, but ate nothing.  The meal had been ruined.

As I have written before, I have eaten very well in Africa.  The continental shelves off the coast of Mauritania are among the richest in the world in fish, and it was a treat to eat fresh lobster, crabs, tuna, bonito, and sole.  Ti--bou dien, a dish of Nile perch and couscous eaten in the Sahel is succulent and fragrant.  Nile Perch (capitaine) is for me the king of fishes – sweet and flavorful, I ate it in Mali from the Niger River, Burundi from Lake Tanganyika, and in Senegal from the Senegal River.  My best memories of ti-bou dien were in a small village near Mopti, the home of my Malian Ministry of Health counterpart.  We had driven to Mopti to review some programs in the local hospital and health centers, and he invited us to dinner at his house.  We ate outside in the early evening after the sun had set, and the heat had begun to lessen.  His mother served the food on a very large, round plate, heaped with couscous and vegetables and fish on top; and she apportioned pieces of carrots and cabbage, and pieces of steamed, spiced fish by hand to each of us.  It was delicious, generous, and pleasant.

I remember the traditional Indian Sunday tiffin, a curry buffet at the Norfolk hotel in Nairobi, an old colonial gem similar to those I have described in Sri Lanka and India, lots of wood and polished brass, well-mannered servants, and delicious food.  There was a large Indian community in East Africa, and curries were popular.

I will mention Tunisia because it is Africa, after all, and because I ate better there than anywhere else on the continent.  The food is Mediterranean – seafood, salads, fresh oranges, olive oil, dry rose wine and I could not get enough grilled octopus and squid, Tunisian salads of chopped grilled tomatoes and red pepper, olives, tuna, dressed in olive oil, and of course oranges.  I remember the first time I ate at what became my favorite restaurant I ordered oranges for dessert, and the waiter brought out a bowl of what I knew were juicy, sweet, tender, seedless wonders.  After I had eaten the whole bowl, the waiter came over and, Frenchified enough to wonder the habits of Americans, told me he had expected me to eat one orange, but was happy that I had enjoyed myself.

One of the only two good things about Luanda – a pestilential, crime-ridden, polluted, congested, dysfunctional city – was the fresh seafood available at restaurants on the Ilha, a  peninsula along the Atlantic Ocean about 10 miles from the city.  The ride was hot, long, frustrating, and agonizing but sitting on the patio, under the palm trees in a civilized, quiet restaurant, overlooking the ocean was my reward for the ride and for the Purgatory of the day.  The margaritas were the best, and the fresh, grilled, giant shrimp were the best I have ever eaten.  Coconuts, the best restaurant on the beach was an oasis of calm and civility.  I went out to the Ilha every night.

The other good thing was the music – a pastiche of Brazilian, Portuguese, American blues, and African hip-hop that was energetic and more interesting than the West African high-life (English-speaking) and pop (French) I danced to in the clubs and discotheques all over Africa. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

…a diverse group of styles including Angolan merengue, kilapanda and semba, the last being a genre with roots intertwined with that of Brazilian samba music. Just off the coast of Luanda is Ilha do Cabo, home to an accordion and harmonica-based style of music called rebita.

When I first brought back African pop music back to Washington in the early 80s, few of my friends had ever heard it.  It was the dance club music.  The songs were based on repetitive phrasing, a pumping beat, high-range electric guitar riffs, and the most delicious of all, the change of key, the pause in phrasing, and major-to-minor shifts.  You never knew when they were coming, but you knew they were, and the expectation was exciting, and the change a happy release.  I danced in clubs all over Africa – in Dakar before it became dangerous to go out at night; in Ouagadougou, in Bamako, Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Maseru, Banjul, and Douala.  Everyone danced in African clubs – young, old, and children.  There were always prostitutes if you wanted to dance with or sleep with them.  The atmosphere was always happy, upbeat, and pure pleasure.

I went on a lot of UN Missions to Africa in the 80s, and the custom was for the sponsoring government agency to treat the team in some way before leaving the country.  In the then Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), the Ministry of Health took us to one of these clubs.  We were told that they were paying for everything – food, drink, and girls – so we should enjoy ourselves.  The food was traditional African, served in great vats with lots of sauce; the music was hot; and the girls beautiful.  It was the best sendoff of all my missions.  The worst, by the way, was the banquet organized by the Mauritanian government who never showed up.  The twenty-five place settings were empty, while the five of us foreigners waited hours, then ate a hilarious meal, joking about the phantom Moors.

I brought back cassettes and later CDs of all this music and went to African clubs in Washington.  In the early 80s there was one particular favorite, the Kilimanjaro on Florida Avenue.  Outside is was a slightly sketchy DC neighborhood.  Inside it was no different than any of the clubs I had visited in West Africa.  It had the same driving, pumping music, the atmosphere, and the friendliness of an African discotheque.  We always were the only white people in the club, but as in Africa, it never mattered.  A few years later American blacks and Jamaicans started to go to the club, and it became clear that we were no longer welcome; but it was great while it lasted.

In addition to Angolan semba, there are two types of African music which stand out as very different from high life – Senegalese and Malian music.  Senegalese music is very jazz-based, subtle, and distinct from the pounding bass and upbeat guitar riffs of the rest of West Africa.  Watching African women dance to this music was hypnotizing and entrancing.  They barely moved, just an almost imperceptible movement of the head and and a sensual undulation of their bodies, and it was the sexiest dance I had ever seen.

Malian music is a music apart – it is unique, truer to its native, folk roots than any other music; but yet so blues-influenced that some scholars have surmised that the American blues must have come from Mali.  Whichever direction the influences went, it was the most interesting and complex music of the continent.  Many musicians played it on the kora, a kind of very resonant gourd with a sound like a harp; but soon transposed their music to the guitar without losing the character of it.  The most well-known Malian musician is Ali Farka Toure.  I saw a documentary about a music festival held in the desert near Timbuktu and all the great musicians from Mali from the South to the Berber North came and played.  That is one festival I am sorry I missed.

Africa was great when I travelled there, before the cities became infested with crime, decimated by AIDS, and still economically viable.  My world travels have satisfied three important desires – India was a sensuous cultural kaleidoscope and an intellectual challenge, but was never fun.  South America was stunningly beautiful, especially the high plateaus and the Andes, but also the vast Amazon jungle; but the machismo and pseudo-sophistication of the Europeanized population was numbing.  Africa was neither kaleidoscopic nor intellectually challenging like India; nor spectacularly beautiful like South America, but lordy lordy, was it ever fun!

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Favorite Movies - THE INSIDER and GLADIATOR

I like both films especially because of Russell Crowe, one of my favorite actors, and in both he plays a deeply moral, committed, and courageous man. Both movies are stories of heroism, and in both Crowe shows – more than any other actor – internal conflict. In THE INSIDER – based on a true story - Geoffrey Wigand (Crowe), a former executive at Brown & Williamson, has been fired because of his opposition to his company’s policy of refusing to acknowledge the addictive nature of tobacco and because of their enhancement of nicotine.

After some deliberation and at the persistence of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), CBS 60 Minutes producer, he becomes a whistle-blower. Because of this and the escalating threats, physical, mental, and legal by the tobacco company, he not only loses his job, but his wife leaves him, CBS reconsiders and leaves him hanging and the powerful 60 Minutes segment never gets aired. Thus, all his loss and personal suffering has been for naught. The movie has a happy ending – CBS reconsiders, the segment is aired, and Wigand is vindicated.

From the earliest scenes, Crowe shows the inner conflict of Wigand – his honesty and revulsion at the dishonesty and criminality of Brown & Williamson vs. his deeply-felt commitment to and sense of responsibility for his family. He has few lines, and his face, expressions, posture, and demeanor tell all. In a great scene with the company director, played by Michael Gambon who increases the pressure on Wigand by narrowing his confidentiality agreement, Crowe expressed his indignation at this insult. “I always intended to honor the confidentiality agreement”, he says angrily but with self-control, hurt and shocked that Gambon suspects his honor and fidelity.

This is Crowe at his best, seething with righteous indignation but controlling what he says. When Gambon cynically and malevolently says he doesn’t believe him, thus the more restrictive legal agreement, Wigand finally says what he feels. “Well, fuck the confidentiality agreement, Mr. Sandefur, and fuck you!” Gambon is brilliant – he is unctuous but threatening and dangerous. He never raises his voice, makes cynical references to Wigand’s golf game, and in his dismissiveness, frightening.

In the scenes with his wife (Diane Venora), equally brilliant in her display of greediness and total lack of compassion, understanding, and support, Crowe shows his hurt, dismay, and disillusionment – but again with few words.

The scenes in Mississippi while he is deciding whether or not to testify against Brown & Williamson, show Crowe at an almost impossible level of stress – this is the moment when he has to decide whether or not to honor his personal ethics and honesty, or protect his family. He testifies and even more aggressive tactics by B&W begin.

The scenes without Crowe are equally fine. This is perhaps Al Pacino’s finest role as the producer who has equally high ethical and moral standards, stands up to CBS and helps to vindicate Wigand at the risk of great personal loss. Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace is perfect. He, too, grapples with questions of integrity, but only at the end when it is too late, does he act honorably. He says to Pacino, when the NYT and WSJ break the story on 60 Minutes’ capitulation to their corporate offices, “At my age you see things a little differently”, and goes on to state that he doesn’t want to be remembered for a callow response rather than a life of premier journalism.

THE INSIDER is a powerful story of right and wrong. Perhaps that is why I like it and THE HUSTLER, which I wrote about yesterday. Both are perfect.

GLADIATOR, of course, is a completely different movie - a swords and sandals epic which has great sweep and Hollywood effects; but it is Russell Crowe, again defending his honor, the honor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) murdered by his son (Joaquin Phoenix), and his family. Added to this is revenge - Crowe, as The Gladiator, once the General of the Roman Armies of the North, but living the life of a slave after his attempted murder and escape never ceases in his desire to kill the Phoenix character which he does, but dies in the battle.

There is an intensity in Crowe's performance which is even more pronounced than in THE GLADIATOR, which is almost hard to believe. The grief he shows when he sees his family hanged is almost unbearable to watch. The hatred for the new Emperor who tried to kill him and who killed his family, the revenge he must have, and the love of his family all come together in Crowe's performance, and it is a masterpiece.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as the scheming, craven, weak, and frightening Emperor. He smothers his old father, the Emperor, and then, when he finds out who The Gladiator is, is ceaseless in his cowardly attempts to kill him. His best performance by far.

So, don't be put off by the swords and sandals, the gory gladiatorial fights and battle scenes. This movie is about Russell Crowe. See it.