Alex is played by Luke Wilson. Emma is played by Kate Hudson. He also plays Adam, the young hero of the story within the story, and she plays four different nannies Swedish, German, Latino, and American who are employed by a rich French divorc? So the story is a bore.
The act of writing the story is also a bore, because it consists mostly of trying out variations on the plot and then seeing how they look in the parallel story. Of course chemistry develops between Alex and Emma, who fall in love, and just as well: There is a Hollywood law requiring fictional characters in such a situation to fall in love, and the penalty for violating it is death at the box office. Curious, the ease with which Alex is able to dictate his novel. Words flow in an uninterrupted stream, all perfectly punctuated.
No false starts, wrong word choices, or despair. Emma writes everything down and then offers helpful suggestions, although she fails to supply the most useful observation of all, which would be to observe that the entire novel is complete crap. Despite the deadly deadline, which looms ever closer, the young couple finds time to get out of the apartment and enjoy a Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude, that old standby where they walk through the park, eat hot dogs, etc. Now about his apartment. He has art hanging all over his apartment, except in front of those slats.
All Alex has to do is sublet, and his financial worries are over. He will make wonderful movies in the future. He has not, however, made a wonderful movie in the present. This story is said to be based on fact. If it is, I am amazed that such promising material would yield such pitiful results. This underground hero turns out to be the lovely and fragrant Romy Nicolette Krebitz , a librarian who, for the convenience of the plot, lives in a loft under the roof of the library, so that during one of many unbelievable scenes the spies are able to lift a skylight window in order to eavesdrop on an interrogation.
The plot requires them to infiltrate the factory, steal an Enigma machine, and return to England with it. Anyone who has seen Enigma, U — , or the various TV documentaries about the Enigma machine will be aware that by the time of this movie, the British already had possession of an Enigma machine, but to follow that line of inquiry too far in this movie is not wise. The movie has an answer to it, but it comes so late in the film that although it makes sense technically, the damage has already been done. How it becomes clear that he is not a woman is not nearly as interesting as how anyone could possibly have thought he was a woman in the first place.
The action in the movie would be ludicrous anyway, but is even more peculiar in a cross-dressing comedy. Surely they know he is, if not a spy, at least a drag queen? I fear the movie makes it appear the Nazis think he is a sexy woman, something that will come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Eddie Izzard, including Eddie Izzard. And yet we bought them in that comedy, and it remains a classic.
Apart from the inescapable difference in actual talent, could it have anything to do with the use of color? Black-and-white is better suited to many kinds of comedy because it underlines the dialogue and movement while diminishing the importance of fashions and eliminating the emotional content of various colors.
Billy Wilder fought for black-and-white on Some Like It Hot because he thought his drag queens would never be accepted by the audience in color, and he was right. The casting is also a problem. Matt LeBlanc does not belong in this movie in any role other than, possibly, that of a Nazi who believes Eddie Izzard is a woman. He is all wrong for the lead, with no lightness, no humor, no sympathy for his fellow spies, and no comic timing.
CD’s – SHY'S HIP-HOP MARKET
I can imagine this movie as a black-and-white British comedy, circa , with Peter Sellers, Kenneth Williams, et al. Almost Salinas. Almost Salinas is a sweet and good-hearted portrait of an isolated crossroads and the people who live there or are drawn into their lives. Shame about the plot. The people are real, but the story devices are clunkers from Fiction ; the movie generates goodwill in its setup, but in the last act it goes haywire with revelations and secrets and dramatic gestures.
The movie takes place in Cholame, the California town where James Dean died in , and maybe the only way to save it would have been to leave out everything involving James Dean. John Mahoney stars as Max Harris, the proprietor of a diner in a sparsely populated backwater. Virginia Madsen is Clare, his waitress, and other locals include Nate Davis, as an old-timer who peddles James Dean souvenirs from a roadside table, and Ian Gomez, as the salt-of-the-earth cook. The town experiences an unusual flurry of activity.
A film crew arrives to shoot a movie about the death of James Dean. And a magazine writer named Nina Ellington Linda Emond arrives to do a feature about the reopening of the gas station. If this seems like an unlikely subject for a story, reflect that she stays so long she could do the reporting on the reopening of a refinery. The place and the people are sound. Mahoney has the gift of bringing quiet believability to a character; his Max seems dependable, kind, and loyal. Virginia Madsen is the spark of the place, not a stereotyped, gum-chewing hash slinger, but a woman who takes an interest in the people who come her way.
Better, perhaps, to make her a woman with no reason at all to be in Cholame. Let her stay because she has no place better to go, and then let her fall in love. The arrival of the film crew, with its own model of the same car, introduces a series of parallels between past and present that it would be unfair to reveal. Spoiler warning! Without spelling everything out, let us observe, however, that it is unlikely that a character who was locally famous in could stay in the same area and become anonymous just by changing his name.
It is also unlikely that he would be moved, so many years later, to the actions he takes in the film. And cosmically unlikely that they would have the results that they do. Not to mention how pissed off the film company would be. My fears were well grounded. Almost Salinas generates enormous goodwill and then loses it by betraying its characters to the needs of a plot that wants to inspire pathos and sympathy, but inspires instead, alas, groans and the rolling of eyes.
The Amati Girls. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Maybe he could perform a miracle and turn this into a cable offering, so no one has to pay to see it. Alone among them, Mercedes Ruehl somehow salvages her dignity while all about her are losing theirs. The movie is about a large Italian-American family in Philadelphia. Too large, considering that every character has a crisis, and the story races from one to another like the guy on TV who kept all the plates spinning on top of the poles. This family not only has a matriarch Cloris Leachman but her superfluous sister Lee Grant and their even more superfluous sister Edith Field.
There are also four grown daughters, two husbands, two hopeful fianc? Denise and Christine think Grace is ruining her life with guilt because when she was a little girl she ran away and her mother chased her and fell, which of course caused Dolores to be retarded. Sample subplot: Dolores decides she wants a boyfriend. This has not resulted in Armand being a once-normal person with brain damage, but, miraculously, in his being exactly like Dolores.
At the movies, after they kiss, he shyly puts his hand on her breast, and she shyly puts her hand on his. No less than two fathers do it in this movie. Both Joe Sorvino and Paul have daughters in a ballet recital, and not only does Joe overcome his loathing for ballet and even attend rehearsals, but Paul overcomes his workaholism and arrives backstage in time to appear with his daughter.
The movie has one unexpected death, of course. That inspires a crisis of faith, and Dolores breaks loose from the funeral home, enters the church, and uses a candlestick to demolish several saints, although she is stopped before she gets to the BVM. There are also many meals in which everyone sits around long tables and talks at once. There is the obligatory debate about who is better, Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. And an irritating editing twitch: We are shown the outside of every location before we cut inside. She cut off her hair and became a Carmelite.
American Outlaws. For years there have been reports of the death of the Western. Now comes American Outlaws , proof that even the B Western is dead. It only wants to be a bad movie, and fails. Imagine the cast of American Pie given a camera, lots of money, costumes, and horses, and told to act serious and pretend to be cowboys, and this is what you might get. The movie tells the story of the gang formed by Jesse James and Cole Younger after the Civil War—a gang which, in this movie, curiously embodies the politics of the antiglobalization demonstrators in Seattle, Sweden, and Genoa.
It is curious that they are against the railroad. In much better movies like The Claim , the coming of the railroad is seen by everybody as an economic windfall, and it creates fortunes by where it decides to lay its tracks. For farmers, it was a lifeblood—a fast and cheap way to get livestock and crops to market. But the James farm is one of those movie farms where nothing much is done. There are no visible herds or crops, just some chickens scratching in the dirt, and Ma James Kathy Bates apparently works it by herself while the boys are off to war.
Her hardest labor during the whole movie is her death scene. Jesse James is played by Colin Farrell, who turned on instant star quality in the Vietnam War picture Tigerland and turns it off here. Farrell here seems less like the leader of a gang than the lead singer in a boy band, and indeed he and the boys spend time arguing about their billing. Should it be the James Gang? The James-Younger Gang? The Younger-James Gang? According to American Outlaws , Jesse James was motivated not by money but by righteous anger and publicity—all the boys liked being famous.
After getting his revenge and knocking over countless banks, what he basically wants to do is retire from the gang and get himself a farm and settle down with pretty Zee Mimms Ali Larter. While we are musing about how many nighttime robberies there had been in American history, we meet the villains. Dozens of extras are killed and countless stuntmen topple forward off buildings, but the stars are treated with the greatest economy, their deaths doled out parsimoniously according to the needs of the formula screenplay.
The style, class, and intelligence of a Western like that in an era which also gave us The Wild Bunch is like a rebuke to American Outlaws. What happened to the rough-hewn American intelligence that gave us the Westerns of Ford, Hawks, and Peckinpah? When did cowboys become teen pop idols? Anatomy of Hell. She is the only woman in a gay nightclub.
She goes into the toilet and cuts her wrist. He follows her in, sees what she has done, and takes her to a drugstore, where the wound is bandaged. He asks her why she did it. Breillat is the bold French director whose specialty is female sexuality. Sometimes she is wise about it, as in 36 Fillette , the story of a troubled teenager who begins a series of risky flirtations with older men. Or in Fat Girl , about the seething resentment of a pudgy twelve-year-old toward her sexpot older sister.
But sometimes she is just plain goofy, as in Anatomy of Hell , which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians. The Woman makes an offer to The Man. She will pay him good money to watch her, simply watch her, for four nights. He keeps his end of the bargain, but there were times when I would have paid good money to not watch them, simply not watch them. I remember when hardcore first became commonplace, and there were discussions about what it would be like if a serious director ever made a porn movie.
The answer, judging by Anatomy of Hell , is that the audience would decide they did not require such a serious director after all. The Woman believes men hate women, and that gay men hate them even more than straight men, who, however, hate them quite enough.
Men fear women, fear their menstrual secrets, fear their gynecological mysteries, fear that during sex they might disappear entirely within the woman and be imprisoned again by the womb. To demonstrate her beliefs, The Woman disrobes completely and displays herself on a bed, while The Man sits in a chair and watches her, occasionally rousing himself for a shot of Jack on the rocks. They talk. They speak as only the French can speak, as if it is not enough for a concept to be difficult, it must be impenetrable. Some events in this movie cannot be hinted at in a family newspaper. Objects emerge to the light of day that would distinguish target practice in a Bangkok sex show.
The poor guy is just as much a prop here as men usually are in porn films. He is played by Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star. The Woman is played by Amira Casar, who is completely nude most of the time, although the opening titles inform us that a body double will be playing her close-ups in the more action-packed scenes. No doubt the truth can be unpleasant, but I am not sure that unpleasantness is the same as the truth. There are scenes here where Breillat deliberately disgusts us, not because we are disgusted by the natural life functions of women, as she implies, but simply because The Woman does things that would make any reasonable Man, or Woman, for that matter, throw up.
Here I am at Sundance This was a risky, original film by a brilliant new director, who told the story of a group of Asian kids from affluent families in Orange County, who backed into a life of crime with their eyes wide open. Let the young directors at Sundance set aside their glowing reviews and gaze with sad eyes upon this movie, for it is a cautionary lesson. It is the anti-Sundance film, an exhausted wheeze of bankrupt clich? The movie stars James Franco as Jake Huard, a working-class kid who works as a riveter in a Chesapeake Bay shipyard and gazes in yearning across the waters to the U.
Naval Academy, which his dead mother always wanted him to attend. His father, Bill Brian Goodman , opposes the idea: He thinks his kid is too hotheaded to stick it out. But Jake is accepted for an unlikely last-minute opening, and the movie is the story of his plebe year. That year is the present time, I guess, since Jake is referred to as a member of the class that will graduate in That means that the Navy is presumably fighting a war somewhere or other in this old world of ours, although there is not a single word about it in the movie.
The plebes seem mostly engaged in memorizing the longitude and latitude of Annapolis to avoid doing push-ups. There is much suspense over whether Twins can complete the obstacle course in less than five minutes by the end of the year. If I had a year to train under a brutal Marine drill sergeant with his boot up my butt, I could complete the goddamn obstacle course in under five minutes, and so could Queen Latifah. The drill sergeant is Lt. Cole Tyrese Gibson , who is a combat-veteran Marine on loan to the academy. Where he saw combat is never mentioned, even when he returns to it at the end of the movie.
But this movie is not about war. It is about boxing. It switches from one set of clich? Because Jake has an attitude and because Cole doubts his ability to lead men, they become enemies, and everything points toward the big match where Jake and Cole will be able to hammer each other in the ring. I forgot to mention that Jake was an amateur fighter before he entered the academy. His father thought he was a loser at that, too. Surely a director who made Better Luck Tomorrow would have nothing to do with such an ancient wheeze, which is not only off the shelf, but off the shelf at the resale store?
Yes, the Navy is at war, and it all comes down to a boxing match. Is there a little store in Westwood that sells dialogue like this on rubber stamps? There is only one character in the movie who comes alive and whose dialogue is worth being heard. That is the fat kid, Twins. His reason may not make audiences in Arkansas and Mississippi very happy, but at least it has the quality of sounding as if a human being might say it out loud.
Welcome to Beatport
Baise-Moi is a a violent and pornographic film from France about two women, one a rape victim, the other a prostitute, who prowl the countryside murdering men. Or, Baise-Moi is b an attempt to subvert sexism in the movies by turning the tables and allowing the women to do more or less what men have been doing for years—while making a direct connection between sex and guns, rather than the sublimated connection in most violent movies. I ask this question because I do not know the answer.
Certainly most ordinary moviegoers will despise this movie—or would, if they went to see it, which is unlikely. It alternates between graphic, explicit sex scenes, and murder scenes of brutal cruelty. Later, you ask what the filmmakers had in mind. They are French, and so we know some kind of ideology and rationalization must lurk beneath the blood and semen. The film has been written and directed by Virginie Despentes, based on her novel; she enlisted Coralie Trin Thi, a porno actress, as her codirector whether to help with the visual strategy or because of her understanding of the mechanical requirements of onscreen sex, it is hard to say.
It was written and directed by Takeshi Kitano, who starred under his acting name, Beat Takeshi. Kitano under any name is the Japanese master of lean, violent, heartless action pictures, and in this one the plot is punctuated every five minutes or so by a bloodbath in which enemies are shot dead. Many, many enemies. The killings are separated in Brother by about the same length of time as those in Baise-Moi , or the sex acts in a porno film.
Obviously all three kinds of film are providing payoffs by the clock. Would Brother be as depressing as Baise-Moi if all the victims had sex before they were gunned down? At some level it seems so … cruel … to shoot a man at his moment of success. A case can be made that Baise-Moi wants to attack sexism in the movies at the same time it raises the stakes.
Manu and Nadine are man haters and clinically insane, and not every man is to blame for their unhappiness—no, not even if he sleeps with them. An equally controversial new American movie named Bully is also about stupid, senseless murder, but it has the wit to know what it thinks about its characters. Baise-Moi is more of a bluff. The directors know their film is so extreme that most will be repelled, but some will devise intellectual defenses and interpretations for it, saving them the trouble of making it clear what they want to say.
Ernest Hemingway, who was no doubt a sexist pig, said it is moral if you feel good after it, and immoral if you feel bad after it. Manu and Nadine do not feel bad, and that is immoral. Ballistic: Ecks vs. There is nothing wrong with the title Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever that renaming it Ballistic would not have solved. Strange that they would choose such an ungainly title when, in fact, the movie is not about Ecks versus Sever but about Ecks and Sever working together against a common enemy—although Ecks, Sever, and the audience take a long time to figure that out.
The movie is a chaotic mess, overloaded with special effects and explosions, light on continuity, sanity, and coherence. Sever has lost her child in an attack and Ecks believes he has lost his wife, so they have something in common, you see, even though …. He has obtained a miniaturized robot so small it can float in the bloodstream and cause strokes and heart attacks. At one point in the movie a man who will remain nameless is injected with one of these devices by a dart gun, and it kills him.
All very well, but consider for a moment the problem of cost overruns in these times of economic uncertainty. A miniaturized assassination robot small enough to slip through the bloodstream would cost how much? And it is delivered by dart? Sever is an ungainly mess, submerged in mayhem, occasionally surfacing for clich? When the FBI goes looking for Ecks, for example, they find him sitting morosely on a bar stool, drinking and smoking.
That is, of course, where sad former agents always are found, but the strange thing is, after years of drinking he is still in great shape, has all his karate moves, and goes directly into violent action without even a tiny tremor of DTs. The movie ends in a stock movie location I thought had been retired: a steam and flame factory where the combatants stalk each other on catwalks and from behind steel pillars, while the otherwise deserted factory supplies vast quantities of flame and steam.
Vancouver itself, for that matter, is mostly deserted, and no wonder, if word has gotten around that two U. Sever was directed by Wych Kaosayananda of Thailand, whose pseudonym, you may not be surprised to learn, is Kaos. I embarked on Basic with optimism and goodwill, confident that a military thriller starring John Travolta and Samuel L. As the plot unfolded, and unfolded, and unfolded, and unfolded, I leaned forward earnestly in my seat, trying to remember where we had been and what we had learned. Reader, I gave it my best shot. But with a sinking heart I realized that my efforts were not going to be enough, because this was not a film that could be understood.
With style and energy from the actors, with every sign of self-confidence from the director, with pictures that were in focus and dialogue that you could hear, the movie descended into a morass of narrative quicksand. By the end, I wanted to do cruel and vicious things to the screenplay. It sets up a situation and then does a bait and switch. You never know which walnut the truth is under. You invest your trust and are betrayed.
I felt The Usual Suspects was a long ride for a short day at the beach, but at least as I traced back through it, I could see how it held together. But as nearly as I can tell, Basic exists with no respect for objective reality. It is all smoke and no mirrors. The film is set in a rainy jungle in Panama. I suspect it rains so much as an irritant, to make everything harder to see and hear. Or maybe the sky gods are angry at the film. We are introduced to the hard-assed Sgt. Nathan West Jackson , a sadistic perfectionist who is roundly hated by his unit.
When various characters are killed during the confusion of the storm, there is the feeling the deaths may not have been accidental, may indeed have involved drug dealing. Julia Osborne Connie Nielsen. The murders and the investigation are both told in untrustworthy flashbacks. We get versions of events from such differing points of view, indeed, that we yearn for a good old-fashioned omnipotent POV to come in and slap everybody around. There are so many different views of the same happenings that, hell, why not throw in a musical version?
Of course, there are moments that are engaging in themselves. Finally we arrive at an ending that gives a final jerk to our chain and we realize we never had a chance. What is the point of a movie like Basic? To make us feel cleverly deceived? To do that, the film would have to convince us of one reality and then give us another, equally valid classics like Laura did that. This movie gives no indication even at the end that we have finally gotten to the bottom of things.
There is a feeling that Basic II could carry right on, undoing the final shots, bringing a few characters back to life and sending the whole crowd off on another tango of gratuitous deception. Battlefield Earth. Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. The visuals are grubby and drab. The characters are unkempt and have rotten teeth. Breathing tubes hang from their noses like ropes of snot.
The sound track sounds like the boom mike is being slammed against the inside of a fifty-five-gallon drum. The plot …. But let me catch my breath. This movie is awful in so many different ways. Even the opening titles are cheesy. Sci-fi epics usually begin with a stab at impressive titles, but this one just displays green letters on the screen in a type font that came with my Macintosh.
It is the year The race of Psychlos have conquered Earth. Humans survive in scattered bands, living like actors auditioning for the sequel to Quest for Fire. Soon a few leave the wilderness and prowl through the ruins of theme parks and the city of Denver. The ruins have held up well after one thousand years. The books in the library are dusty but readable, and a flight simulator still works, although where it gets the electricity is a mystery. The hero, named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, is played by Barry Pepper as a smart human who gets smarter thanks to a Psychlo gizmo that zaps his eyeballs with knowledge.
He learns Euclidean geometry and how to fly a jet, and otherwise proves to be a quick learner for a caveman. Terl is head of security for the Psychlos, and has a secret scheme to use the humans as slaves to mine gold for him. Jonnie Goodboy figures out a way to avoid slave labor in the gold mines. He and his men simply go to Fort Knox, break in, and steal it. What Terl says when his slaves hand him smelted bars of gold is beyond explanation.
We can sit back and watch it choose its food. An experiment like that, you pray for a chicken. Their costumes look purchased from the Goodwill store on Tatoine. Travolta can be charming, funny, touching, and brave in his best roles; why disguise him as a smelly alien creep? The Psychlos can fly between galaxies, but look at their nails: Their civilization has mastered the hyperdrive but not the manicure. I am not against unclean characters on principle—at least now that the threat of Smell-O-Vision no longer hangs over our heads. Lots of great movies have squalid heroes.
But when the characters seem noxious on principle, we wonder if the art and costume departments were allowed to run wild. Battlefield Earth was written in by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The film contains no evidence of Scientology or any other system of thought; it is shapeless and senseless, without a compelling plot or characters we care for in the slightest.
The director, Roger Christian, has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why. Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies. If the film had been destroyed in a similar cataclysm, there might have been a standing ovation.
Beautiful should have gone through lots and lots more rewrites before it was imposed on audiences. The movie tells the story of Mona, a girl who dreams of becoming a beauty queen and grows up to become obsessed with her dream. Her life is not without difficulties. As a child from Naperville, Illinois, she is graceless, wears braces, chooses costumes Miss Clarabell would not be seen in, cheats, and is insufferably self-centered. As an adult, played by Minnie Driver, she gets rid of the braces but keeps right on cheating, until by the time she becomes Miss Illinois she has survived her third scandal.
Sample scandal. A competitor in a pageant plans to twirl a fire baton. As a girl, Mona is best pals with Ruby, a girl who for no good reason adores her. Why does Ruby devote her entire life to Mona and become a surrogate mother? Search me. Because the plot makes her, I guess. Mona has parents of her own, a mother and a stepfather who are sullen, unhelpful, drink too much, and spend most of their time being seen in unhelpful reaction shots. The screenplay is no help in explaining their personalities or histories. She suspects Mona is her real mom and seems fed up being used as a pawn at one point she gets on the phone to order some foster parents.
She knows Mona has a child and is planning to break the story, but no one who has watched television for as long as a day could conceivably believe her character or what she does. She is obviously not on the same channel as the pageant, so she must be on another channel. Joyce, I guess, since she addresses them in real time whenever she feels like it. The staging is so inept she is actually seen eavesdropping on the pageant by placing her ear near to a wall. No press gallery? Not even a portable TV for her to watch? As for Mona herself, Minnie Driver finds herself in an acting triathlon.
Mona changes personalities, strategies, and IQ levels from scene to scene. I was amazed at one point when people told Mona what the matter with her was, and then she went home and lay down on the sofa and we got flashback voice-overs as memories of the accusing voices echoed in her head.
That device was dated in Driver would have been miscast even if the screenplay had been competent. Oddly enough, Joey Lauren Adams the husky-voiced would-be girlfriend from Chasing Amy could have played the beauty queen—and Driver could have played the pal. And what about Ruby, the nurse played by Adams?
The filmmakers have no sense of proportion; Ruby could just as easily have been stuck in a gas station with a flat tire and provided the same reaction shots watching TV in the climax. Why kill the sweet old lady? Now consider. Mona has been involved in three scandals. She scarred one of her competitors for life. Her roommate and manager is in jail charged as an Angel of Death. A TV newswoman knows she has a secret child.
What are the odds any beauty pageant would let that contestant on stage? The executives who green-lighted it did her no favors. Beautiful Creatures. Here is a movie about two of the most loathsome women in recent cinema, and the movie thinks the male characters are the villains. It gets away with this only because we have been taught that women are to be presumed good and men are to be presumed evil. Flip the genders in this screenplay, and there would not be the slightest doubt that the characters named Petula and Dorothy are monsters. Consider, for example, the setup.
Dorothy Susan Lynch has been unwise enough to shack up with a boyfriend who is not only a junkie but also a golfer. This makes her a two-time loser. She pawns his golf clubs. He gets revenge by throwing her brassiere in boiling water, dyeing her dog pink, and stealing her money, which is from the pawned golf clubs. Any golfer or junkie will tell you that at this point, they are approximately morally even. Dorothy leaves the house and comes upon a disturbance in the street. Why is he doing this?
Because the movie requires this demonstration of typical male behavior. Dorothy is already mad, and now she loses it. Imagine a scene where a man slams a woman with a pipe, and then joins her boyfriend in dragging the body into the bathtub and sharing a joint while she dies. Even more difficult in a comedy, which, I neglected to mention, Beautiful Creatures intends to be. Men are more violent than women, yes, and guilty of abuse, yes, although the percentage of male monsters is incalculably higher in the movies than in life.
Like Thelma and Louise, Dorothy and Petula commit crimes that are morally justifiable because of their gender. We even like them for it. My own theory is that any jury in Scotland would believe their story that the man was violent and Dorothy had come to the defense of a sister. The movie, set in Glasgow and one of the many offspring of Trainspotting , uses local color for a lot of its gags. Instead of picketing The Sopranos , Italian-Americans should protest the new wave of films from Scotland, which indicate Scots make funnier, more violent, more eccentric, and more verbal gangsters than they do.
Films and TV shows that portray ethnic groups as interesting and colorful are generally a plus, since those viewers dumb enough to think every story is an accurate portrait are beyond our help anyway. The plot. The dead man has a brother who is a rich bad guy. A detective Alex Norton comes to investigate, gets in on the scheme, and alters it with designs of his own. Meanwhile, the junkie boyfriend turns up again, and one thing leads to another.
You know how it is. There is some dark humor in the movie, of the kind where you laugh that you may not gag. And the kind of convoluted plotting that seems obligatory in crime films from Scotland consider Shallow Grave. In fact, if the movie had been able to make me laugh, I might have forgiven it almost anything.
Be Cool. John Travolta became a movie star by playing a Brooklyn kid who wins a dance contest in Saturday Night Fever He revived his career by dancing with Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction In Be Cool , Uma Thurman asks if he dances. The hard part is, what do we do with it? Be Cool is a movie that knows it is a movie. It knows it is a sequel and contains disparaging references to sequels. All very cute at the screenplay stage, where everybody can sit around at story conferences and assume that a scene will work because the scene it refers to worked.
So we remember Fever and then we forget it, because the new scene is working on its own. Now look at the dance scene in Be Cool. Travolta and Thurman dance in a perfectly competent way that is neither good nor bad. Emotionally they are neither happy nor sad. The scene is not necessary to the story. The filmmakers have put them on the dance floor without a safety net. The whole movie has the same problem. It is a sequel to Get Shorty , which was based on a novel by Elmore Leonard just as this is based on a sequel to that novel.
Funnier if he had advanced to the front ranks of movie producers and was making a movie with A-list stars when his past catches up with him. Instead, he tries to take over the contract of a singer named Linda Moon Christina Milian , whose agent Vince Vaughn acts as if he is black. But where do you go with it? Maybe by sinking him so deeply into dialect that he cannot make himself understood, and has to write notes.
I pause here long enough to note that Elliot Wilhelm is the name of a friend of mine who runs the Detroit Film Theater, and that Elmore Leonard undoubtedly knows this because he also lives in Detroit. He makes dire threats against Chili Palmer, who disarms him with flattery, telling him in the middle of a confrontation that he has all the right elements to be a movie star.
There are other casting decisions that are intended to be hilarious. Sin LaSalle has a chief of staff played by Andre , who is a famous music type, although I did not know that and neither, in my opinion, would Chili. There is also a gag involving Steven Tyler turning up as himself. Be Cool becomes a classic species of bore: a self-referential movie with no self to refer to.
One character after another, one scene after another, one cute line of dialogue after another, refers to another movie, a similar character, a contrasting image or whatever. The movie is like a bureaucrat who keeps sending you to another office. To have The Rock play a gay narcissist is not funny because all we can think about is that The Rock is not a gay narcissist. But if they had cast someone who was also not The Rock, but someone removed from The Rock at right angles, like Steve Buscemi or John Malkovich, then that might have worked, and The Rock could have played another character at right angles to himself—for example, the character played here by Harvey Keitel as your basic Harvey Keitel character.
Think what The Rock could do with a Harvey Keitel character. In other words: 1 Come up with an actual story, and 2 if you must have satire and self-reference, rotate it 90 degrees off the horizontal instead of making it ground level. Also 3 go easy on the material that requires a familiarity with the earlier movie, as in the scenes with Danny DeVito, who can be the funniest man in a movie, but not when it has to be a movie other than the one he is appearing in.
Behind Enemy Lines. I wonder if it played as a comedy. This is not the story of a fugitive trying to sneak through enemy terrain and be rescued but of a movie character magically transported from one photo opportunity to another. The pilots eject. Stackhouse is found by Tracker Vladimir Mashkov , who tells his commander, Lokar Olek Krupa , to forget about a big pursuit and simply allow him to track Burnett.
He wants to fly in and rescue Burnett, but is blocked by his NATO superior, Admiral Piquet Joaquim de Almeida —who is so devious he substitutes NATO troops for Americans in a phony rescue mission and calls them off just when Burnett is desperately waving from a pickup area. Admiral Piquet, who sounds French, is played by a Portuguese actor. What Burnett does do is stroll through Bosnia like a bird-watcher, exposing himself in open areas and making himself a silhouette against the skyline.
First rule of not getting caught: No loud involuntary yells within the hearing of the enemy. This guy is a piece of work. Consider the scene where Burnett substitutes uniforms with a Serbian fighter. He even wears a black ski mask covering his entire face.
He walks past a truck of enemy troops, and then what does he do? How did this guy get through combat training? Must have been a social promotion to keep him with his age group. At times Burnett is pursued by the entire Serbian army, which fires at him with machine guns, rifles, and tanks, of course never hitting him. The movie recycles the old howler where hundreds of rounds of ammo miss the hero, but all he has to do is aim and fire, and—pow! I smiled during the scene where Admiral Reigart is able to use heat-sensitive satellite imagery to look at high-res silhouettes of Burnett stretched out within feet of the enemy.
Maybe this is possible. What I do not believe is that the enemies in this scene could not spot the American uniform in a pile of enemy corpses. Do I need to tell you that the ending involves a montage of rueful grins, broad smiles, and meaningful little victorious nods, scored with upbeat rock music? No, probably not. And of course we get shots of the characters and are told what happened to them after the story was over—as if this is based on real events. Blade: Trinity. The second film was directed by Guillermo del Toro, a gifted horror director with a sure feel for quease inducing, and was even better, I thought, than the first.
Now comes Blade: Trinity , which is a mess. It lacks the sharp narrative line and crisp comic-book clarity of the earlier films, and descends too easily into shapeless fight scenes that are chopped into so many cuts that they lack all form or rhythm. The setup is a continuation of the earlier films. Vampires are waging a war to infect humanity, and the most potent fighter against them is the half-human, half-vampire Blade Wesley Snipes. He has been raised from childhood by Whistler Kris Kristofferson , who recognized his unique ability to move between two worlds, and is a fearsome warrior, but, despite some teammates, is seriously outnumbered.
Agents surround Blade headquarters, which is your basic action movie space combining the ambience of a warehouse with lots of catwalks and high places to fall from and stuff that blows up good. Dracula is some kinduva guy. His mouth and lower face unfold into a series of ever more horrifying fangs and suchlike, until he looks like a mug shot of the original Alien.
Parker Posey is an actress I have always had affection for, and now it is mixed with increased admiration for the way she soldiers through an impossible role, sneering like the good sport she is. Jessica Biel becomes the first heroine of a vampire movie to listen to her iPod during slayings. Vampires in this movie look about as easy to kill as the ghouls in Dawn of the Dead. They have a way of suddenly fizzing up into electric sparks, and then collapsing in a pile of ash.
The vampire killers and their fellow Night Stalkers engage in an increasingly murky series of battles with the vampires, leading you to ask this simple strategic question: Why, since the whole world is theirs for the taking, do the vampires have to turn up and fight the Night Stalkers in the first place? Why not just figure out that since the Stalkers are in Vancouver, the vampires should concentrate on, say, Montreal?
Boat Trip. Boat Trip arrives preceded by publicity saying many homosexuals have been outraged by the film. Not that the film is outrageous. That would be asking too much. It is dimwitted, unfunny, too shallow to be offensive, and way too conventional to use all of those people standing around in the background wearing leather and chains and waiting hopefully for their cues. This is a movie made for nobody, about nothing.
The premise: Jerry Cuba Gooding Jr. Nick has heard that the ships are jammed with lonely women. But they offend a travel agent, who books them on a cruise of gay men, ho ho. Well, it could be funny. Different characters in a different story with more wit and insight might have done the trick. Uh, huh. The gays protesting the movie say it deals in stereotypes. So it does, but then again, so does the annual gay parade, and so do many gay nightclubs, where role-playing is part of the scene. Some of the scenes play as if they are intended to be realistic. Then Jerry or Nick goes into hysterics of overacting.
Then Jerry attempts to signal a helicopter to rescue him, and shoots it down with a flare gun. Then Jerry asks Gabriela to describe her oral sex technique, which she does with the accuracy and detail of a porn film, and then Jerry—but that pathetic moment you will have to witness for yourself.
Or maybe you will not. Bootmen is the story of a young dancer and his friends who revisit the clich? Screwing metal plates to the soles of their work boots, they stomp in unison on flat steel surfaces while banging on things. Imagine Fred Astaire as a punch-press operator. The movie has been adapted by director Dein Perry from his own performance piece, which he might have been better advised to make into a concert film. It takes place in Australia, where Sean Adam Garcia dreams of becoming a dancer. His salt-of-the earth father, a steelworker, opposes the plan. Sean cannot face life without dance in Newcastle, a steel town, despite the charms of the fragrant Linda Sophie Lee , a hairdresser who has given him to understand that he might someday, but not yet, enjoy her favors.
In Sydney, Sean encounters a hard-nosed choreographer William Zappa , a staple of dance movies, who is not easy to impress. I am not suggesting that all, or most, or many dancers are gay, but surely one has heard that some are? Sean arrives in the morning, discovers that Mitchell and Linda have sailed into waters that Linda had assured him would remain uncharted pending their own maiden voyage, and becomes so depressed that we realize we have reached the Preliminary Crisis as defined in elementary screenwriting outlines.
Now what? It remains only for the steel mills to close so that Sean can realize that the millworkers should be retrained as computer experts. But there are no computers. Why not have a benefit? Is there a scene near the end of the performance where the once-bitter dad enters, sees that his son is indeed talented, and forgives all?
Is Linda pardoned for her lapse of faithfulness? Do Mitchell and Sean realize that even though Mitchell may have slept with the woman Sean loves it was because Mitchell had too much to drink, something that could happen in any family? Do the townspeople of Newcastle give a lusty ovation to the performance? Is there an encore? Veteran moviegoers will walk into the theater already possessing the answers to these and many other questions. Bride of the Wind. She must have been a monster. The Alma Mahler depicted in is a woman who prowls restlessly through the beds of the famous, making them miserable while displaying no charm of her own.
Whether this was the case with the real woman I do not know. The movie has three tones: overwrought, boring, laughable. Sarah Wynter, who plays Alma, does not perform the dialogue but recites it. We first meet her going to a ball her father has forbidden her to attend. He is stern with her when she returns. So much for her adolescence. She has affairs throughout their marriage. She cheats with the architect Gropius Simon Verhoeven , who unwisely writes a love letter to Alma but absentmindedly addresses it to Gustav—or so he says. Mahler is always going on about his music, you see, and thinks himself a genius.
Well, so does Gropius.
The screenplay shows the egos of the men by putting big, clanging chunks of information in the dialogue. There is. Another affair is with the sculptor and painter Oskar Kokoschka Vincent Perez , who goes off to fight the war and is shot through the head and bayoneted after falling wounded.
In what the movie presents as a dying vision, he imagines Alma walking toward him. Since his head is flat on the ground, she walks toward him sideways, rotated ninety degrees from upright. She becomes involved with the writer Werfel. Then he sees she is pregnant and rejoices that she decided to have his baby after all, instead of an abortion. A year. The penny falls. Ben Affleck makes the same mistake in Pearl Harbor. At a loss to explain this lapse, I can only observe that another of his filmed biographies, King David , was also very bad.
Maybe there is something about a real-life subject that paralyzes him. If Sarah Wynter is not good as Alma Mahler, the other actors seem equally uneasy—even the usually assured Pryce and Perez. Something must have been going wrong on this production. Filmmakers need a sixth sense for lines that might play the wrong way. For example:. After Alma has slept with as many Viennese artists as she can manage without actually double booking, she quarrels with the latest. Are you going to send him away? At the end of the movie there are titles telling us what happened to everyone; Gropius moved to America and went on to become a famous architect, etc.
We are not surprised to learn that little Maria went on to be married five times. Cabin Fever. Unsure of whether it wants to be a horror film, a comedy, an homage, a satire or a parable, Cabin Fever tries to cover every base; it jumps around like kids on those arcade games where the target lights up and you have to stomp on it. It assembles the standard package of horror heroes and heroines sexy girl, nice girl, stalwart guy, uncertain guy, drunk guy and takes them off for a post-exam holiday in the woods where things get off to a bad start when a man covered with blood comes staggering out of the trees.
The film could develop its plague story in a serious way, like a George Romero picture or 28 Days Later , but it keeps breaking the mood with weird humor involving the locals. The drama mostly involves the characters locking the door against dogs, the locals, and each other; running into the woods in search of escape or help; trying to start the truck which, like all vehicles in horror films, runs only when the plot requires it to and having sex, lots of sex. The nature of the disease is inexplicable; it seems to involve enormous quantities of blood appearing on the surface of the skin without visible wounds, and then spreading in wholesale amounts to every nearby surface.
If some of this material had been harnessed and channeled into a disciplined screenplay with a goal in mind, the movie might have worked. But the director and coauthor, Eli Roth, is too clever for his own good, and impatiently switches between genres, tones, and intentions.
The movie adds up to a few good ideas and a lot of bad ones, wandering around in search of an organizing principle. It gets those right. Everything else is secondary, except for the plot, which is tertiary. What a letdown. The filmmakers have given great thought to photographing Berry, who looks fabulous, and little thought to providing her with a strong character, story, supporting characters, or action sequences. In a summer when Spider-Man 2 represents the state of the art, Catwoman is tired and dated.
The strength of Spider-Man 2 is in the ambivalence that Peter Parker has about being part nerdy student, part superhero. In Catwoman , where are the scenes where a woman comes to grips with the fact that her entire nature and even her species seems to have changed? Berry plays Patience Philips, a designer for an ad agency, who dies and is reborn after Midnight, a cat with ties to ancient Egypt, breathes new life into her. She becomes Catwoman, but what is a catwoman? She can leap like a cat, strut around on top of her furniture, survive great falls, and hiss. Halle Berry looks great doing these things and spends a lot of time on all fours, inspiring our almost unseemly gratitude for her cleavage.
She gobbles down tuna and sushi. Her eyes have vertical pupils instead of horizontal ones. She sleeps on a shelf. What does she think about all of this? How does it affect her relationship with that cute cop, Tom Lone Benjamin Bratt? From what we know about Catwoman, her style in bed has probably changed along with everything else, and sure enough the next day he notices a claw mark on his shoulder. They were richer, more confident, and moved with even more swagger and styie than our motiey crew of oddbaiis and amateurs.
They moved in a pack, with their own diaiect-a high- pitched, ultra-femme, affected drawl, salted with terms from eighteenth-century English literature and Marine Corps drill instructor-speak-a lush, intimidating, sardonic secret language, which was much imitated. Too damn ignorant to pour piss from a boot! Your odor offends me and my shell-like ear gapeth to hear thy screams of pain.
I insist you avert your face and serve me a libation before I smite your sorry ass with the tip of my boot-you sniveling little cocksucker! They looked down on outsiders, frequently communicated with only a glance or a smile, and moved through the streets and bars and back alleys of P-town like Titans. They had more coke, better weed, bigger gold, prettier women. They loved rubbing our noses in it. How many was it. Dee Dee, daahlin? Slow night, I dare say. Pathetic, don't you know.
Pig-dogs must have eaten their mung elsewhere tonight. Dairy Queen, probably. Howard was the sole 'name chef in town. Fiftyish, furiously alcoholic, and stone-deaf-the result of a childhood accident with fireworks- Howard could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen's bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly he liked to sing as well.
He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer's gut, and he wore the short- sleeved, snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. Aii seafood. Unlike most of us, he knew what to do with it. He loved the less popular fishes of the day, using tuna, squid, mackerel, bluefish and salt cod to great advantage. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.
He was the first chef I knew to appreciate fully the local Portugee cuisine: the spicy cumin-scented squid stews, the linguica-laden kale soups, the coupling of fish and pork sausages. And he was a strident advocate for the mystical powers of the Quahog, that humble, slightly tough local clam. Once each summer, Howard and friends-mostly artists, local fishermen, writers and drunks- would throw a party called the John J.
Gaspie Memorial Clambake, in honor of a departed fisherman friend. It was a major social event for P-town's year-round residents, and for those of us who worked the season in the restaurant business. Howard and friends would dig pits in the beach and drop shiny new trash cans into the holes, then fill them with quahogs, lobsters, codfish, vegetables, potatoes and corn, allowing them to simmer over glowing coals buried deep in the sand while everyone drank themselves silly. To us at the Dreadnaught, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues.
We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical, and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes.
Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live. And that stuck with some of us from those early frontier days. He influenced a lot of my friends. I read a Molly O'Neill column in the New York Times Magazine recently, in which she was describing the delights of Portuguese-influenced Cape Cod food like white beans, kale and chorizo, and I knew she'd eaten the old man's food, and probably read his books too.
Without his name being mentioned, Howard's reach had extended across the decades to my Sunday paper-and I was glad of it. There was another inspiring moment: a rough, choppy, moonlit night on the water, and the Dreadnaught's manager looked out the window suddenly to spy thousands of tiny baitfish breaking the surface, rushing frantically toward shore. He knew what that meant, as did everyone else in town with a boat, a gaff and a loaf of Wonderbread to use as bait: the stripers were running! Thousands of the highly prized, relatively expensive striped bass were, in a rare feeding frenzy, suddenly there for the taking.
You had literally only to throw bread on the water, bash the tasty fish on the head with a gaff and then haul them in. They were taking them by the hundreds of pounds. Every restaurant in town was loading up on them, their parking lots, like ours, suddenly a Coleman-lit staging area for scaling, gutting and wrapping operations. The Dreadnaught lot, like every other lot in town, was suddenly filled with gore-covered cooks and dishwashers, laboring under flickering gaslamps and naked bulbs to clean, wrap and freeze the valuable white meat. We worked for hours with our knives, our hair sparkling with snowflake-like fish scales, scraping, tearing, filleting.
At the end of the night's work, I took home a pound monster, still twisted with rigor. My room-mates were smoking weed when I got back to our little place on the beach and, as often happens on such occasions, were hungry. We had only the bass, some butter and a lemon to work with, but we cooked that sucker up under the tiny home broiler and served it on aluminum foil, tearing at it with our fingers.
It was a bright, moonlit sky now, a mean high tide was lapping at the edges of our house, and as the windows began to shake in their frames, a smell of white spindrift and salt saturated the air as we ate. It was the freshest piece of fish I'd ever eaten, and I don't know if it was due to the dramatic quality the weather was beginning to take on, but it hit me right in the brainpan, a meal that made me feel better about things, made me better for eating it, somehow even smarter, somehow It was a protein rush to the cortex, a clean, three-ingredient ingredient high, eaten with the hands.
Could anything be better than that? As the season came to an end, the regular crew began to fade away, off to work ski resorts in Colorado, charter boats in the Caribbean, restaurants and crab-shacks in Key West. After Labor Day, I got my chance to move up for the last few weeks before the Dreadnaught closed for the year.
I worked the fry station, dunking breaded clams and shrimp into hot oil for a while, racked up a serious body count of lobsters on the double-decker steamer, and finally was moved up yet again to do a few shifts on the mighty broiler. I cannot describe to you the sheer pleasure, the power oi commanding that monstrous, fire-breathing iron and steel furnace, bumping the grill under the flames with my hip the way I'd seen Bobby and Jimmy do it. It was tremendous. I couldn't have felt happier-or more powerful in the cockpit of an F I ruled the world for a few short weeks, and I was determined to make that station my own the following season.
Sadly, things didn't turn out as planned. The next summer, Mario bought our faltering restaurant. Mario was kind enough to allow those of us who'd worked there the previous year to audition for our old jobs with a few shifts in his kitchen. I was thrilled by the opportunity, and headed up to P- town that April filled with hope and confidence, certain I'd make the cut, land that top-tier broiler job, the big money, the gig that would surely make me one of the pirate elite, an ass-kicking, throat-slitting stud who could lord it over the salad men and fry cooks and prep drones at less successful restaurants.
I pulled into town, I remember, wearing-God help me-a spanking-new light blue Pierre Cardin seersucker suit. The shoes, too, were blue. Here I was, hitchhiking into a town that for all intents and purposes was a downscale, informal Portuguese fishing village and artists' colony, a town where people dressed unpretentiously in work clothes-denims, army surplus, old khakis-and in some deranged, early '70s bout of disco-inspired hubris, I chose to make my entrance in gull- wing shouldered Robert Palmer-wear, just itching to show the local yokels how we did it in New York City.
They were pounding veal in the kitchen when I arrived; the whole crew, on every available horizontal surface, banging on veal cutlets for scallopine with heavy steel mallets. The testosterone level was high, very high. These guys were the A-Team, and they knew it. Everybody knew it. The floor staff, the managers, even Mario seemed to walk on eggs around them, as if one of them would suddenly lunge through the bars of their cage and take a jagged bite.
I alone was too stupid to see how over my head I was among these magnificent cooking machines. I'd served a few hundred meals, at a relaxed pace, in a not very busy joint, in the off- season. Looking back, I can't remember Tyrone as being anything less than 8 feet tall, pounds of carved obsidian, with a shaved head, a prominent silver-capped front tooth, and the ubiquitous fist-sized gold hoop earring. While his true dimensions were probably considerably more modest, you get the picture: he was big, black, hugely muscled, his size 56 chef's coat stretched across his back like a drumhead.
But unintimidated as only the ignorant can be, I started shooting my stupid mouth off right away, regaling my new chums with highly exaggerated versions of my adventures at the old Dreadnaught-what bad boys we had been. I blathered on about New York, trying to portray myself as some street-smart, experienced, even slightly dangerous professional gun-for-hire of the cooking biz. They were, to be charitable to myself, not impressed.
Not that this deterred me in the slightest from yapping on and on. I ignored all the signs. All of them: the rolling eyes, the tight smiles. I plunged on, oblivious to what was happening in the kitchen right around me; the monstrous amounts of food being loaded into low-boys and reach-ins for mise-en-place. I missed the determined sharpening of knives, the careful arranging and folding of side towels in kitty- cornered stacks, the stockpiling of favorite pans, ice, extra pots of boiling water, back-up supplies of everything.
They were like Marines digging in for the siege at Khe Sanh, and I registered nothing. I should have seen this well-practiced ritual for what it was, understood the level of performance here in Marioland, appreciated the experience, the time served together which allowed these hulking giants to dance wordlessly around each other in the cramped, heavily manned space behind the line without ever colliding or wasting a movement.
They turned from cutting board to stove-top with breathtaking economy of movement, they hefted pound stockpots onto ranges, tossed legs of veal around like pullets, blanced hundreds of pounds of pasta, all the while indulgently enduring without comment my endless self-aggrandizing line of witless chatter. I should have understood. But I didn't.
An hour later the board was filled with more dinner orders than I'd ever seen in my life. Ticket after ticket kept coming in, one on top of the other, waiters screaming, tables of ten, tables of six, four-tops, more and more of them coming, no ebb and flow, just a relentless, incoming, nerve-shattering gang-rush of orders.
And the orders were all in Italian! I couldn't even understand most of the dupes, or what these waiters were screaming at me. The seasoned Mario cooks had an equally impenetrable collection of code names for each dish, making it even more difficult to make sense of it all. There were cries of 'Ordering! Flames 3 feet high leaped out of pans, the broiler was crammed with a slowly moving train of steaks, veal chops, fish fillets, lobsters.
Pasta was blanched and shocked and transferred in huge batches into steaming colanders, falling everywhere, the floor soon ankle-deep in spaghetti alia chitarra, linguine, garganelli, taglierini, fusilli. The heat was horrific. Sweat flowed into my eyes, blinding me as I spun in place. I struggled and sweated and hurried to keep up the best I could, Tyrone slinging sizzle-platters under the broiler, and me, ostensibly helping out, getting deeper and deeper into the weeds with every order. On the rare occasions when I could look up at the board, the dupes now looked like cuneiform or Sanskrit-indecipherable.
I was losing it. Tyrone, finally, had to help the helper. Then, grabbing a saute pan, I burned myself. I yelped out loud, dropped the pan, an order of osso bucco milanese hitting the floor, and as a small red blister raised itself on my palm, I foolishly-oh, so foolishly-asked the beleaguered Tyrone if he had some burn cream and maybe a Band-Aid.
This was quite enough for Tyrone. It went suddenly very quiet in the Mario kitchen, all eyes on the big broiler man and his hopelessly inept assistant. Orders, as if by some terrible and poetically just magic, stopped coming in for a long, horrible moment. Tyrone turned slowly to me, looked down through bloodshot eyes, the sweat dripping off his nose, and said, 'Whachoo want, white boy?
Burn cream? A Band-Aid? Jhen he raised his own enormous paims to me, brought them up reai ciose so i couid see them properiy: the hideous consteiiation of water-fiiied biisters, angry red weits from griii marks, the oid scars, the raw fiesh where steam or hot fat had made the skin simpiy roii off. They iooked iike the ciaws of some monstrous science-fiction crustacean, knobby and caiioused under wounds oid and new. He never fiinched. The other cooks cheered, hooted and roared at my utter humiiiation.
Orders began to come in again and everyone went back to work, giggiing occasionaiiy. They ended up kicking me back down to prep, one step above dishwasher on the food chain. My torment, my disgrace was compiete. After a few days of suiking and seif-pity, i siowiy, and with growing determination, began to formuiate a pian, a way to get back at my tormentors, i wouid go to schooi, at the Cuiinary institute of America-they were the best in the country and certainiy none of these P-town guys had been there, i wouid apprentice in France, i wouid endure anything: evii drunk chefs, crackpot owners, iow pay, terribie working conditions; i wouid iet sadistic, bucket-headed French sous-chefs work me iike a Sherpa.
My Vassar friends-those who remained on speaking terms with me after two years of truiy disgusting behavior on my part- thought i was out of my mind, but then they thought that anyway, i'm sure that there was a coiiective sigh of reiief on Vassar's roiiing, green, weii-tended campus that i wouid no ionger be around to cadge free drinks, steai drugs, make pointediy cruei remarks and generaiiy iower the ievei of discourse. My idois of that time had been, aii too predictabiy. Hunter Thompson, Wiiiiam Burroughs, iggy Pop and Bruce Lee; i had had, for some time, a romantic if inaccurate view of myseif as some kind of hypervioient, junkie Byron.
My iast semester at Vassar, i'd taken to wearing nunchakus in a strap-on hoister and carrying around a samurai sword-that shouid teii you aii you need to know. The most romantic thing i had bone in two years was to chop down about an acre of Vassar's iiiacs one night with my sword, so that i couid fiii my girifriend's room with the blossoms. CIA was a bit of a departure. I'd love to tell you it was tough getting in. There was a long waiting list. But I reached out to a friend of a friend who'd donated some heavy bucks to the school and owned a well-known restaurant in New York City, and about two weeks after filling out my application I was in.
I was an enrolled student at an institution where everyone wore identical white uniforms, funny paper hats and actually hadXo attend class. Like I said, it was a bit of a departure. But I was ready. CIA is located in the buildings and grounds of a former Jesuit monastery on a Hudson River clifftop, a short cab ride from Poughkeepsie. In my buttoned-up chef's coat, check pants, neckerchief and standard-issue leatherette knife roll-up, I arrived determined but full of attitude.
My knives set me apart right away. I had my by now well-worn high-carbon Sabatiers rolled in with the cheap school-supply junk: hard-to-sharpen Forschner stainless steel, peeler, parisienne scoop, paring knife and sheer. I was older than most of my fellow students, many of whom were away from home for the first time. Unlike them, I lived off campus, in Poughkeepsie with the remnants of my Vassar pals. I'd actually worked in the industry-and I'd had sex with a woman. These were not the cream of the crop, my fellow culinarians.
It was 1 and CIA was still getting more than their share of farm boys, bed-wetters, hicks, flunk-outs from community colleges and a few misfits for whom CIA was preferable to jail or juvenile detention. Hopeless in the kitchen, happy in their off-hours to do little more than build pyramids of beer cans, they were easy marks for a hard case like myself.
I nearly supported myself during my two years in Hyde Park playing seven-card stud, Texas hold-em, no-peek and acey-deucey. I felt no shame or guilt taking their money, selling them beat drugs or cheating at cards. They were about to enter the restaurant industry; I figured they might as well learn sooner rather than later. If the Mario crew ever got hold of some of these rubes, they'd have the fillings out of their teeth. It was very easy going for me. The first few months at CIA were spent on stuff like: 'This is the chef's knife. This is the handle. This is the blade,' as well as rote business on sanitation.
My food sanitation instructor, an embittered ex-health inspector judging from the scars on his face, the last honest man in that trade , regaled us with stories of pesticide-munching super rats, the sex lives of bacteria and the ever-present dangers of unseen filth. I took classes in food-handling, egg cookery, salads, stocks, soups, basic knifework. But after spending way too many hours deep in the bowels of Marioland, peeling spuds, making gallons of dressings, chopping vegetables and so on, I knew this stuff in my bones. Of course, my stocks in class always tasted far better than my classmates'.
No one could figure out how I coaxed such hearty flavor out of a few chicken bones, or made such wonderful fish fumet with fish racks and shrimp shells, all in the limited time available. Had my instructors given me a pat-down before class they might have learned my secret: two glassine envelopes of Minor's chicken and lobster base inside my chef's coat, for that little extra kick.
They never figured it out. The CIA of was very different from the four-year professional institution it is today. Back then, the desired end-product seemed to be future employees at a Hilton or Restaurant Associates corporate dining facility. A lot of time was spent on food destined for the steam table. Sauces were thickened with roux. Escoffier's heavy, breaded, soubised, glaceed and over- sauced dinosaur dishes were the ideal. Everything, it was implied, must come with appropriate starch, protein, vegetable.
Nouvelle cuisine was practically unheard of. No way. We're talking two years of cauliflower in mornay sauce, saddle of veal Orloff, lobster thermidor, institutional favorites like chicken Hawaiian, grilled ham steak with pineapple ring and old-style lumbering classics like beef Wellington. But it was fun. Pulled sugar, pastillage work, chaud-froids, ice-carving. You don't see a lot of that in the real world, and there were some really talented, very experienced old-school Euro- geezers at CIA who passed on to their adoring students the last of a dying style.
Charcuterie class was informative and this old style was well suited to learning about galantines and ballottines and socles and pates, rillettes, sausage-making and aspic work. Meat class was fun; learning the fundamentals of butchering, I found for the first time that constant proximity to meat seems to inspire black humor in humans. I have since found that almost everybody in the meat business is funny-just as almost everyone in the fish business is not.
They'd let us practice our knife work on whole legs of beef, my novice butcher class-mates and I absolutely destroying thousands of pounds of meat; we were the culinary version of the Manson Family. Fortunately, the mutilated remains of our efforts were-as was all food at ClA-simply passed along to another class, where it was braised, stewed or made into soup or grinding meat. They had figured out this equation really well.
All students were either cooking for other students, serving other students or being fed by other students-a perfect food cycle, as we devoured our mistakes and our successes alike. There were also two restaurants open to the general public, but a few fundamentals were in order before the school trusted us with inflicting our limited skills on the populace. Vegetable Cookery was a much-feared class. The terrifying Chef Bagna was in charge, and he made the simple preparing of vegetables a rigorous program on a par with Parris Island.
He was an Italian Swiss, but liked to use a German accent for effect, slipping quietly up behind students mid-task, and screaming questions at the top of his lungs. How to make pommes dauphinoise!! NeiniZere is no onions in ze potatoes dauphinoise! But the man knew his vegetables, and he knew what pressure was. Another class.
Oriental Cookery, as I believe it was then called, was pretty funny. The instructor, a capable Chinese guy, was responsible for teaching us the fundamentals of both Chinese and Japanese cooking. The Chinese portion of the class was terrific. When it came time to fill us in on the tastes of Japan, however, our teacher was more interested in giving us an extended lecture on the Rape of Nanking. His loathing of the Japanese was consuming. You wanna eat that? Japanese shit! The joke went that everyone gained 5 pounds in baking class.
I could see what they meant. It was held in the morning, when everyone was starving, and after a few hours of hard labor, hefting heavy sacks of flour, balling and kneading dough, loading giant deck and windmill ovens with cinammon buns, croissants, breads and rolls for the various school-operated dining rooms, the room would fill with the smell. When the finished product started coming out of the ovens, the students would fall on it, slathering the still-hot bread and buns with gobs of butter, tearing it apart and shoveling it in their faces.
Brownies, pecan diamonds, cookies, profiteroles-around 10 percent of the stuff disappeared into our faces and our knife rolls before it was loaded into proof racks and packed off to its final destinations. It was not a pretty sight, all these pale, gangly, pimpled youths, in a frenzy of hunger and sexual frustration, shredding bread. It was like Night of the Living Dead, everyone seemed always to be chewing. If there was an Ultimate Terror, a man who fit all of our ideas of a Real Chef, a monstrous, despotic, iron-fisted Frenchman who ruled his kitchen like President for Life Idi Amin, it was Chef Bernard.
The final class before graduation was the dreaded yet yearned-for 'E Room', the Escoffier Room, an open-to-the-public, three-star restaurant operated for profit by the school. Diners, it was said, made reservations years in advance. Here, classic French food was served a la carte, finished and served off gueridons by amusingly inept students. Our skipper, the mighty septuagenarian Chef Bernard, had, it was rumored, actuaiiy worked with Escoffier himseif His name was mentioned only in whispers; students were aware of his unseen presence for months before entering his kitchen.
It was an open kitchen. A large window allowed customers to watch the fearsome chef as he lined up his charges for inspection, assigned the day's work stations, reviewed the crimes and horrors and disappointments of the previous night's efforts. This was a terrifying moment, as we all dreaded the souffle station, the one station where one was assured of drawing the full weight of Chef Bernard's wrath and displeasure. The likelihood of a screw up was highest here, too.
It was certain that at least one of your a la minute souffles would, under real working conditions, fail to rise, rise unevenly, collapse in on itself-in some way fail to meet our leader's exacting standards. Students would actually tremble with fear before line-up and work assignments, praying, 'Not me. Not today. In full view of the gawking public and quavering comrades, the offending souffle cook would be called forward to stand at attention while the intimidating old French master would look down his Gallic shnozz and unload the most withering barrage of scorn any of us had ever experienced.
You are deezgusting! A shoe-maker! You have destroyed my life! You will never be a chef! You are a disgrace! Look at this merde. An abomination! Everyone got ten minutes.
Even the girls, who would, sad to say, invariably burst into tears thirty seconds into the chef's tirade. He did not let their tears or sobs deter him. They stood there, shaking and heaving for the full time while he ranted and raved and cursed heaven and earth and their ancestors and their future progeny, breaking them down like everybody else, until all that remained was a trembling little bundle of nerves with an unnaturally red face in a white polyester uniform.
One notable victim of Chef Bernard's reign of terror was a buddy of mine-also much older than the other students-who had just returned from Vietnam. He'd served in combat with an artillery unit and returned stateside to attend the CIA under the Gl Bill and had made it through the whole program, had only four days to go before graduation, but when he saw that in a day or two his number would be up and he, without question, would be working the dreaded souffle station, he folded under the pressure.
When my time came to stand there in front of my fellow students, and all the world, and get my ten minutes, I was ready. I could see Chef Bernard looking deep into my eyes as he began his standard tirade, could see him recognize a glimmer of something iamiWar somewhere in there.
I did the convict thing. The louder and more confrontational the authority figure got, the more dreamy and relaxed I became. Bernard saw it happening. I may have been standing at rigid attention, and saying all the right things, 'Oui, Chef! Non, Chef! I think the old bastard might have even smiled a little bit, halfway through. There seemed to be a twinkle of amusement in his eyes as he finally dismissed me with feigned disgust.
He knew, I think, that I had aiready been humiliated. He looked in my eyes and saw, perhaps, that Tyrone and the Mario crew had done his work for him. I liked Chef Bernard and respected him. I enjoyed working under him. But the fat bastard didn't scare me. And he knew it. He could have smacked me upside the head with a skillet and I would have smiled at him through broken teeth.
He saw that, I think-and it ruined all the fun. He was actually nice to me after that. He'd let me stand and watch him decorate the voiture each night, a task he reserved for himself: the glazing and garnishing of a hot roast in a rolling silver display cart. He layered on his blanched leeks and carved tomato roses like a brain surgeon, humming quietly to himself, aware, I think, that soon they wouldn't be doing much of this anymore. My final proud accomplishment at CIA was the torpedoing of a dangerous folly being planned for the graduation ceremonies. The event was planned for the Great Hall, the former chapel in the main building.
An idea was being floated by some of my class-mates-all over-zealous would-be pastry chefs-to create a display of pastillage, marzipan, chocolate sculpture and wedding cakes to wow and amaze our loved ones as they were herded into the ceremony. I'd seen the kind of work an over eager patissier can do-l'd seen their instructor's work-and most of it was awful, as so much pastry and garde-manger work is when the chef starts thinking he's an artist rather than a craftsman.
I'd seen a much admired commemorative cake, depicting Nixon, painted in chocolate on a pastillage cameo, communicating by telephone with the Apollo astronauts in their space module, also chocolate on pastillage. I did not want my friends and family to have to gaze upon a horror like that. I didn't want to be a killjoy. To dampen the enthusiasm at this proud and happy event by being a naysayer and a cynic was too close to what I'd been at Vassar, and those days, I liked to think, were behind me. I was sneakier in my strategy to put an end to this outrage.
I submitted my own earnest proposal, requesting that I be allowed to contribute a piece montee to the festivities, even going so far as to submit a sketch of my proposed project: It would be a life-sized tallow sculpture, depicting a white-toqued baby Jesus, with knife and steel in his tiny hands, held by an adoring Madonna.
Needless to say, my beef-fat Madonna horrified the graduation committee. Rather than offend my disturbingly sincere, if quirky, religious beliefs, they scotched the whole display. An animal-fat Sistine Chapel was not something they wanted all those parents and dignitaries to see. And who knows what could happen if they opened the door for me?
What other demented expressions of personal hell might wind up lining the Great Hall? The ensuing ceremony was thus spared the prospect of decomposing aspics depicting Moses parting the Red Sea, or melting wedding cakes. A few days later, I had my diploma. I was now a graduate of the best cooking school in the country-a valuable commodity on the open market-1 had field experience, a vocabulary and a criminal mind. I was a danger to myself and others. Newly invigorated with obscure cooking terms.
A little knowledge can be dangerous and annoying I'd been working in the city weekends while at school, I could work a station without embarrassing myself, and I was enthusiastic about my new, if modest, skills. I was determined to outwork, outlast and in every way impress my old tormentors at Mario's. Dimitri, the pasta man, was years older than I was. Then in his early thirties, running to fat, with chunky-framed glasses and a well-tended handlebar moustache, he was markedly different from his fellow cooks at Mario's. Born in the USA of a Russian father and a German mother, he was the only other cook in P-town who'd been to cooking school-in his case, a hotel school in Switzerland.
Though he claimed to have been expelled for demonstrating the Twist in that institution's dining hall, I always doubted this version of events. He became the second great influence in my career. A mama's boy, loner, intellectual, voracious reader and gourmand, Dimitri was a man of esoteric skills and appetites: a gambler, philosopher, gardener, fly-fisherman, fluent in Russian and German as well as having an amazing command of English. He loved antiquated phrases, dry sarcasm, military jargon, regional dialect, and the New York Times crossword puzzle-to which he was hopelessly addicted.
It was from Dimitri's fertile mind that much of what I'd come to know as Mariospeak had originated. Brainy, paranoid, famously prone to sulking, he both amused and appalled his co- workers with his many misadventures, his affected mannerisms and his tendency to encounter tragicomic disaster. Fond of hyperbole and dramatic over-statement, Dimitri had distinguished himself after a particularly unpleasant breakup with a girlfriend by shaving his head completely bald.
This would have been, in itself, a rather bold statement of self-loathing and grief, but Dimitri pushed matters to the extreme; the story went that he had no sooner revealed his snow- white skull to the world than he went to the beach, got drunk and sat there, roasting his never- before-exposed-to-the-sun scalp to the July ultraviolets. When he returned to work the next day, not only was he jarringly bald, but his head was a bright strawberry- red, blistered and oozing skullcap of misery. No one talked to him until his hair grew back. Dimitri saw himself, I think, as a Hemingwayesque, hard-boozing raconteur Renaissance man, but he was completely under the thumb of his mother, a severe, equally brilliant gynecologist, whose daily calls to the Mario kitchen were much imitated.
Is Dih-mee-tree zere? But I was a broiler man now, a CIA student, a curiosity. It was permissible for Dimitri to talk to me. It was like Hunt and Liddy meeting; the world would probably have been a better place had it never happened, but a lot of fun was had by all. Dimitri was scared of the outside world. He lived year-round at the tip of the Cape, and he liked to fancy himself a townie. He did a damn good imitation of a local Portuguese fisherman accent, too. But Dimitri was-as the Brits say-quite the other thing. We'd have drinks after knocking off at our respective restaurants and try to outdo each other with arcane bits of food knowledge and terminology.
Dimitri, like me, was a born snob, so it was only natural that when our lord and master, Mario, decided on two employees to cater his annual garden party, he selected his two would-be Escoffiers, the Dimitri and Tony Show. Our early efforts were, in the cold light of day, pretty crude and laughable. But nobody else in town was doing pate en croute or galantines in aspic, or elaborate chaud-froid presentations.
Mario tasked his most pretentious cooks with an important mission, and we were determined not to let him down-especially as it allowed us time off from our regular kitchen chores and all the overtime we needed. We threw ourselves into the task with near-fanatical once-in-a-lifetime zeal and prodigious amounts of cocaine and amphetamines. As a fly-fisherman, Dimitri made his own lures; this obsessive eye for detail carried over to his food. For Mario's garden party, we spent days together in a walk-in refrigerator, heads filled with accelerants, gluing near-microscopic bits of carved and blanched vegetables onto the sides of roast and poached fishes and fowls with hot aspic.
We must have looked like crazed neurologists, using tweezers, bamboo skewers and bar straws to cut and affix garnishes, laboring straight through the night. Covered with gelee, sleepless after forty-eight hours in the cooler, we lost all perspective, Dimitri at one point obsessing over a tiny red faux mushroom in one corner of a poached salmon, muttering to himself about the distinctive white dots on the hood of the Amanita muscara or psilocybin mushroom, while he applied dust-sized motes of cooked egg white for 'authenticity'.
He buried all sorts of horticultural in-jokes in his work-already insanely detailed Gardens of Eden made of leek strips, chives, scallions, paper-thin slices of carrots and peppers. He created jungle tableaux on the sides of hams that he considered, 'reminiscent of Rousseau's better efforts' or 'Gauguin-like'.
When I jokingly suggested Moses parting the Red Sea on the side of a striped bass, Dimitri got a faraway look on his face and immediately suggested a plan. But the Egyptians pursuing in the background. So they're smaller, you see! For perspective? I had to physically restrain him from attempting this tableau. We had been under refrigeration for three days straight when we finally collapsed in the Dreadnaught's cocktail lounge at 4 A.
We woke up a few hours later, covered with flies attracted by the tasty, protein-rich gelee that covered us from head to toe. The garden party was, to be modest, a smashing success. No one in dowdy old Provincetown had ever seen anything like it. We became instantly notorious, and we made the most of it, printing up business cards for a planned catering venture called Moonlight Menus. The cards, commissioned from a local artist, depicted us sneering in toques. Two highly trained specimens like us had more than enough business, thank you very much.
There was, of course, no business. But the strategy worked. In the coke-soaked final weeks of P-town, there were plenty of local businessmen eager to impress their friends with an elaborate end-of-season bash. And we were only too happy to encourage them in even grander pretensions, filling their heads with names and dishes we'd culled from my Larousse few of which we'd actually attempted and quoting staggering prices. We knew well how much these people were paying for cocaine-and that the more coke cost, the more people wanted it. We applied the same marketing plan to our budding catering operation, along with a similar pricing structure, and business was suddenly very, very good.
In no time, we were able to leave our regular jobs at the Dreadnaught and Mario's, lording it over our old co-workers in brand-new Tony Lama boots, and brandishing shiny new Wusthoff knives when we dropped by for a quick visit and a gloat. Our customers were restaurateurs, coke dealers, guys who ran fast boats out to motherships off Hyannis and Barnstaple to offload bales of marijuana.
We catered weddings, parties, private dinners for pizza magnates, successful leather and scrimshaw merchants. Ah, those heady days of happy delusion, spirited argument, grandiose dreams of glory and riches. We did not aspire to be the new Bocuses. No, that wasn't enough.
Jacked up on coke and vodka, we wanted nothing less than to be like Careme, whose enormous pieces montees married the concepts of architecture and food. Our work would literally tower over the work of our contemporaries: Space Needles, Towers of Babel, Parthenons of forcemeat-stuffed pastry, carefully constructed New Babylons of barquettes, vol-au-vents, croquembouches We had some successes-and some failures. A steamship round a whole roast leg of beef on the bone sounded like a good idea; it was, after all, big.
Until we overcooked it. An all-Chinese meal we did was so overloaded with dried Szechuan peppers that we could hear the muffled wails of pain from the next room. But we did have some notable successes as well. The client was a restaurant owner, and we oversold ourselves somewhat.
Committed to our pastry terrordome, we soon found that there wasn't a mold quite large enough for this ambitious effort. What we wanted was a tasty yet structurally sound 'coliseum' of pastry crust into which we could pour about 5 gallons of seafood stew. And we wanted the whole thing to be covered by a titanic pastry dome, perhaps with a tiny pastry figure from antiquity, like Ajax or Mercury, perched on top.
We didn't know if the thing could be done. There was no suitable spring-form mold, something we could line with foil and fill with beans and then blind-bake. We couldn't cook it together with the blanquette; it would never hold. The bubbling veloute suspending our medley of fish and shellfish and wild mushrooms would make the walls too soft. And the dough: what crust could support the weight of 5 gallons of molten stew? As game time approached, we were getting worried. We set up our operations center in our client's restaurant kitchen and promptly bivouacked to a bar for some serious strategizing.
In the end-as it so often does-it came down to Julia. Julia Child's recipes have little snob appeal, but they also tend to work. We took a recipe for dough from her book on French cooking, and after rubbing the outside of a large lobster steamer with shortening, stretched and patched our dough around and over it.
It was exactly the opposite of the prevailing wisdom; fortunately, we didn't know that at the time. For our dome, we used the top of the pot, and the same principle, laying our dough overthe outside of the round lid and baking it until firm. When we finally slid the things off-very carefully, I can tell you-Dimitri was characteristically pessimistic. Would it hold? He didn't think so.
It was a lot of stew we were planning on pouring into this thing, and Dimitri was convinced it would crumble at the table mid-meal, boiling hot fish and lavalike veloute rushing onto the laps of the terrified guests. There would be terrible burns involved, he guessed, 'scarring. Dimitri cheered himself up by suggesting that should the unthinkable happen, we were obliged, like Japanese naval officers, to take our own lives.
It's the least we could do. Party time came and we were ready-we hoped. First there were hors d'oeuvres: microscopic canapes of smoked salmon, cucumber and caviar; Dimitri's chicken liver mousse with diced aspic; little barquettes of something or other; deviled eggs with fish roe; a lovely pate en croute with center garnishes of tongue, ham, pistachio and black truffles, and an accompanying sauce Cumberland I'd lifted right out of my CIA textbook. Our crown roast was no problem.
It was the blanquette that filled our hearts with dread and terror. But God protects fools and drunks, and we were certainly both foolish and drunk much of the time. Things went brilliantly. Our coliseum's walls held! The crown roast, decorated with little frilly panties on each gracefully outward-arching rib bone, looked and tasted sensational. We were given a standing ovation by the dazzled guests and grateful client. When we next showed up at our old kitchens for our weekly gloat, our heads were too big to fit in P-town's doors.
We were already planning on hunting bigger game. We had newer, more sophisticated, even richer victims in mind for our learn-as-we-go operation. In New York. What strange beasts lurk behind the kitchen doors? You see the chef: he's the guy without the hat, with the clipboard under his arm, maybe his name stitched in Tuscan blue on his starched white chef's coat next to those cotton Chinese buttons.
But who's actually cooking your food? Are they young, ambitious culinary school grads, putting in their time on the line until they get their shot at the Big Job? Probably not. If the chef is anything like me, the cooks are a dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers motivated by money, the peculiar lifestyle of cooking and a grim pride. They're probably not even American. Line cooking done well is a beautiful thing to watch.
It's a high-speed collaboration resembling, at its best, ballet or modern dance. A properly organized, fully loaded line cook, one who works clean, and has 'moves'-meaning economy of movement, nice technique and, most important, speed-can perform his duties with Nijinsky-like grace. The job requires character-and endurance.
A good line cook never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and injury. What most people don't get about professional-level cooking is that it is not at all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner.
Line cooking- the real business of preparing the food you eat-is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef's recipes and presentations. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions. A three-star Italian chef pal of mine was recently talking about why he-a proud Tuscan who makes his own pasta and sauces from scratch daily and runs one of the best restaurant kitchens in New York-would never be so foolish as to hire any Italians to cook on his line.
He greatly prefers Ecuadorians, as many chefs do: The Italian guy? You screaming at him in the rush, "Where's that risotto?! Is that fucking risotto ready yet? Gimme that risotto! An Ecuadorian guy? He's gonna just turn his back. That's what I want. Generally speaking, American cooks-meaning, born in the USA, possibly school-trained, culinarily sophisticated types who know before you show them what monterau beurre means and how to make a bearnaise sauce-are a lazy, undisciplined and, worst of all, high-maintenance lot, annoyingly opinionated, possessed of egos requiring constant stroking and tune-ups, and, as members of a privileged and wealthy population, unused to the kind of 'disrespect' a busy chef is inclined to dish out.
No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American. The Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadorian cooks I've worked with over the years make most CIA-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks. In New York City, the days of the downtrodden, underpaid illegal immigrant cook, exploited by his cruel masters, have largely passed-at least where quality line cooks are concerned.
Most of the Ecuadorians and Mexicans I hire from a large pool-a sort of farm team of associated and often related former dishwashers-are very well-paid professionals, much sought after by other chefs. Chances are they've worked their way up from the bottom rung; they remember well what it was like to empty out grease traps, scrape plates, haul leaking bags of garbage out to the curb at four o'clock in the morning. A guy who's come up through the ranks, who knows every station, every recipe, every corner of the restaurant and who has learned, first and foremost, your system above all others is likely to be more valuable and long-term than some bed-wetting white boy whose mom brought him up thinking the world owed him a living, and who thinks he actually knows a few things.
You want loyalty from your line cooks. Somebody who wakes up with a scratchy throat and slight fever and thinks it's okay to call in sick is not what I'm looking for. While it's necessary for cooks to take pride in their work-it's a good idea to let a good cook stretch a little now and again with the occasional contribution of a special or a soup-this is still the army. Ultimately, I want a salute and a 'Yes, sir!
Your customers arrive expecting the same dish prepared the same way they had it before; they don't want some budding Wolfgang Puck having fun with kiwis and coriander with a menu item they've come to love. There are plenty of exceptions, of course. I have a few Americans in my traveling road show, a few key people whom I tend to hire over and over as I move from place to place. The relationship between chef and sous-chef can be a particularly intimate one, for instance, and it's nice to have someone with a similar background and world-view when you're going to spend almost every waking hour together.
Women line cooks, however rare they might be in the testosterone- heavy, male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens, are a particular delight. To have a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking female line cook on your team can be a true joy-and a civilizing factor in a unit where conversation tends to center around who's got the bigger balls and who takes it in the ass. I've been fortunate enough to work with some really studly women line cooks-no weak reeds these. One woman, Sharon, managed to hold down a busy saute station while seven months pregnant-and still find time to provide advice and comfort to a romantically unhappy broiler man.
A long-time associate, Beth, who likes to refer to herself as the 'Grill Bitch', excelled at putting loudmouths and fools into their proper place. She refused to behave any differently than her male co-workers: she'd change in the same locker area, dropping her pants right alongside them. She was as sexually aggressive, and as vocal about it, as her fellow cooks, but unlikely to suffer behavior she found demeaning. One sorry Moroccan cook who pinched her ass found himself suddenly bent over a cutting board with Beth dry-humping him from behind, saying, 'How do you like it, bitch?
Another female line cook I had the pleasure of working with arrived at work one morning to find that an Ecuadorian pasta cook had decorated her station with some particularly ugly hard-core pornography of pimply-assed women getting penetrated in every orifice by pot-bellied guys with prison tattoos and back hair. She didn't react at all, but a little later, while passing through the pasta man's station, casually remarked. Mom looks good for her age. Do nof fuck with a line cook's 'meez'- meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on.
The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm's reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you'll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook's station in the middle of the rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He'd press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, breadcrumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side-towel.
Work cleanf Working clean, constantly wiping and cleaning, is a desirable state of affairs for the conscientious line cook. That chef was right: messy station equals messy mind. This explains why side-towels are hoarded like gold by good line cooks. When the linen order arrives, the smart cookies fall onto it voraciously, stashing stacks of the valuable objects anywhere they can hide them. One cook I knew would load them above the acoustic tile in the ceiling above his station, along with his favorite tongs, favorite non-stick pans, slotted spoons, and anything else he figured he needed on his station and didn't want another cook to get.
I'm sure that years later, though that restaurant has changed hands many times since, future generations of cooks are still finding stashes of fluffy, clean side-towels. It's not just clean that you value in a side-towel-it's dry. It's nice, wiping the rim of a plate with a slightly moist one, but try grabbing a red-hot saute pan handle with a wet towel, and you'll learn fast why a fresh stack of dry towels is a necessity. Some traditional European kitchens still issue two towels per cook at the beginning of the shift: one to work with while the other dries on the oven handle.
This strikes me as criminally parsimonious. I like a tall stack, conveniently located over my station, in neatly folded, kitty-cornered, easy-to-grab fashion, and I don't ever want to run out. I'll rip through twenty of them in the course of an eight-hour service period, and if it costs my masters a few bucks extra, tough. I'm not burning my hand or wiping grease on my nice plates because they're too mean to shell out for a few more rented towels.
What exactly is this mystical mise-en-place I keep going on about? Why are some line cooks driven to apoplexy at the pinching of even a few grains of salt, a pinch of parsley? Because it's ours. Because we set it up the way we want it. Because it's like our knives, about which you hear the comment: 'Don't touch my dick, don't touch my knife. A typical one would be composed of, for instance: kosher or sea salt crushed black peppercorns hand-crushed-nof ground in the blender ground white pepper fresh breadcrumbs chiffonade parsley blended oil in wine bottle with speed poorer extra virgin olive oil white wine brandy chervil tops in ice water for garnish chive sticks or chopped chives tomato concassee caramelized apple sections garlic confit chopped or slivered garlic chopped shallots softened butter favorite ladles, spoons, tongs, pans, pots all sauces, portioned fish, meat, menu items, specials and back-ups conveniently positioned for easy access Being set up properly, trained and coordinated is not nearly enough.
A good line cook has to be able to remain clear-headed, organized and reasonably even-keeled during hectic and stressful service periods. When you've got thirty or forty or more tables all sitting down at the same time and ordering different items with different temperatures, the stuff has to come up together; the various stations-saute, garde-manger, broiler, middle-have to assemble a party of ten's dinner at the same moment. You can't have one member of a party's Dover sole festering in the window by the saute station while the grill guy waits for a rack of lamb to hit medium-rare.
It's got to come up together! Your hero line cook doesn't let the screaming, the frantic cries of 'Is it ready yet? He's got to keep all those temperatures straight in his head, remembering which steak goes with what. He's got to be able to tune out the howls of outrage from the chef, the tiny, gibbering annoyances from the floor, the curses and questions and prompts from his co-workers: 'Ready on seven? If you're a saute man, your grill man is your dance partner, and chances are, you're spending the majority of your time working in a hot, uncomfortably confined, submarine-like space with him.
You're both working around open flame, boiling liquids with plenty of blunt objects at close hand-and you both carry knives, lots of knives. So you had better get along.