Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Words of Wisdom: ‘Twas Ever Thus

“Why shouldn’t we be able to do as well as any Hollywood hack?”

“Because what the producers want is an original but familiar, unusual but popular, moralistic but sexy, true but improbable, tender but violent, slick but highbrow masterpiece. When they have that, then they can ‘work on it’ and make it ‘commercial,’ to justify their high salaries.”

- A 1945 conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Salka Viertel, recounted in Viertel’s 1969 memoir The Kindness of Strangers

Monday, July 28, 2014

Words of Wisdom: Preston Sturges

A man in possession of many bolts of woolen cloth, quantities of lining and interlining, buttons, thread, needles, and padding is not, of necessity, a tailor. A man in possession of many characters, many situations, many startling and dramatic events, and many gags is not, of necessity, a storyteller.

The crafts of the tailor and the storyteller are not dissimilar, however, for out of a mass of unrelated material, each contrives to fashion a complete and well-balanced unit. Many stories are too heavy in the shoulders and too short in the pants, with the design of the material running upside-down …

The customer walking home in his new suit is razzed by small boys as he passes. I thought I knew how to put a story together, but it might turn out I was meant to be a tailor.

- From Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (1990). Sturges’ first hit play Strictly Dishonorable is back on stage in New York City, revived by the Attic Theater.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Me Elsewhere: The United Artists Cocktails

This week’s issue of Eat Drink Films is out, featuring my latest Down The Hatch cocktail column. In it, I make the drinks named after three of the four founders of United Artists. Who’s the odd man (or woman) out? Read the column and see. While you’re there check out the rest of the issue, which includes Vincent Price’s recipe for blueberry muffins and a look at the festivities planned for the centenary year of Orson Welles’ birth.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

It’s a big day, kids. The latest issue of the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation is out – and the first issue on which I’ve served as managing editor, alongside the estimable Steve Kronenberg and under the stewardship of the man himself, El Jefe, Eddie Muller. It is with all due modesty that I say we’ve delivered quite the feast. Among the courses for your delectation:

  • FNF advisory council member Dennis Lehane names his five favorite noirs
  • An interview with Barry Gifford, novelist and impresario behind Black Lizard Books
  • An extensive survey of “rubble noir,” the rarely-seen films made in Germany after the end of World War II
  • Duane Swierczynski’s sensational, highly personal appreciation of the neglected noir Cisco Pike
  • Bob Hoskins remembered by the Saturday Boy his-own-self, Ray Banks
And so much more. I’m not kidding. I’m only scratching the surface of what’s in this issue, all of it beautifully assembled by ace designer Michael Kronenberg working his usual magic.

As for me, I’m all over this one. I’ve got an overview of the mixed-media stage production Helen Lawrence, recently mounted in Vancouver, B.C. and currently touring the globe; reviews of the Blu-Ray of The Counselor, the festival favorite Blue Ruin and the extraordinary slice of Hollywood history Five Came Back by Mark Harris; plus the debut of my new column Cocktails & Crime, rat-a-tatting noir news and notes.

My primary contribution is a look back at season one of True Detective, featuring spectacular illustrations inspired by the HBO show from Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Francesco Francavilla. Honestly, you’re going to want to read this article for the pictures.

So how do you get the magazine? Simple. Swing by the Film Noir Foundation website, make a donation to help preserve one of America’s greatest artistic legacies, then tuck in. You won’t believe what we’ve got cooking for the next issue.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Culross

First, some news. I’m pleased to report I’ve joined the merry band of writers at online magazine EatDrinkFilms as cocktail columnist. Food, booze, and movies? Those are three of my favorite things! “Down the Hatch” – hey, like my book! – will be a monthly feature. My maiden effort honors the magazine’s Northern California roots by looking at the Meyer Lemon Whiskey Sour and the Frisco. Go read it and the rest of the issue while you’re at it.

Whenever I encounter an unfamiliar drink recipe and realize I already have the required ingredients, it’s something of an effort not to cry out “To the bar!”. I stumbled across one the other day while paging through The Savoy Cocktail Book – yes, I do spend my valuable downtime paging through cocktail books, usually in front of a roaring fire with a (rented) dog at my feet, and what’s it to you? – and decided such a voyage of discovery would make the ideal subject for the one hundredth Cocktail of the Week post. Champion, the loaner Labrador nestled by my slippers, barked his assent.

I’m going to repeat that. The ONE HUNDREDTH post. Surely that calls for a drink.

Why not the Culross? I’m not saying this cocktail is unknown. If it’s in Savoy, it’s on a menu somewhere. I’m saying that up to now it’s managed to miss me.

Its Savoy appearance seems to be its debut. No one knows where the name came from, although the Scottish village on the Firth of Forth would be a safe bet. The original recipe called for one-third each Bacardi rum, Kina Lillet and apricot brandy, along with the “juice of ¼ lemon.” Bastardized versions turn up in a handful of later books, often with a heavier pour of rum.

The ratio that was good enough for Harry Craddock would suffice for me. I made my usual substitution of Cocchi Americano for Kina Lillet, the additional snap of cinchona in the Americano a better match for what Harry poured in his day.

As for the juice of one-fourth of a lemon, who has the time to make such calculations in our hectic modern age? A few contemporary recipes upped the lemon juice to full partner, so in went three-quarters of an ounce like the other ingredients.

Drinking the Culross raised another question: Why isn’t this cocktail a perennial favorite? It’s woefully underrated, offering a lovely balance of sweet (brandy), sour (lemon juice), and bitter (Americano), with the rum as stabilizer. Some experts endorse making the drink with apricot eau de vie and I have no doubt it’s splendid in its drier way, but I remain an unabashed brandy partisan. And a Culross convert.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return this dog while I can still get my deposit back.

The Culross

¾ oz. light rum
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
¾ oz. apricot brandy
¾ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Sloe Gin Fizz

How bad had sloe gin’s reputation gotten? Bartenders stopped using it as the principal ingredient in the drink named after it.

Which was unfortunate, because in addition to that evocative handle – one of my favorites in the canon – the sloe gin fizz has some history behind it. How do I know? Because it’s a Mad Men cocktail. According to Dinah Sanders’ recent book The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level, the recipe first appeared in Sunset magazine in 1898. It was once known as a morning drink, which didn’t necessarily mean it was something to order along with your eggs Benedict whenever Aunt Martha visited (although it would certainly suit that occasion). It was fabled far and wide in workingman’s saloons as a hangover remedy.

It would have tasted a damn sight better than the decades’ worth of sloe gin fizzes poured during Spring Breaks from South Padre to Myrtle Beach. The sloe gin of 1898 was not the sloe gin of more recent vintage. As recounted in the epic post about the Millionaire (read it, it’s funny), sloe berries are small, plum-like fruits with a taste that is aggressively, almost brutally tart. Most contemporary sloe gins were over-sweetened to compensate, rendering the liqueur suitable only for the most cloying of cocktails. Recipes for the sloe gin fizz took this sad state of affairs into account, recommending that the drink contain equal parts sloe and traditional gin. Should you somehow acquire authentic sloe gin, you’re advised, by all means use it on its own. But good luck making that happen.

Luck is no longer required. (OK, maybe a little is. Read the Millionaire post.) Plymouth has made a sloe gin commercially available that is true to the spirit’s spirit. Long-forgotten libations like the Charlie Chaplin are once again viable. What does it do for its namesake cocktail?

I prepared the drink both ways, because we here at Keenan Labs are nothing if not thorough. The solo sloe gin version was, as the title of Ms. Sanders’ book indicates, lower in proof. The berries’ distinctive taste was more pronounced, the drink itself light, crisp, and refreshing.

For the more modern version, I paired Plymouth Sloe Gin with the company’s signature gin. Smooth, drier than most London gins and lighter on botanicals, it’s fantastic in martinis and Gibsons. To no one’s surprise, I preferred this version, and not (just) because it’s boozier. The sloe berries still make their presence felt, but the addition of gin gives the drink a stronger foundation. Both have ample charms. Either will banish poorly made poolside sloe gin fizzes from memory.

One last note: the few sloe gin fizz recipes that still call for egg white note that this ingredient is optional. I opted out. I’ve made enough egg white drinks lately, and this one works better as a summer cooler without it. Technically, including the egg white makes it a silver sloe gin fizz. Use this tidbit to impress your bartender!

The Sloe Gin Fizz

1 oz. Plymouth sloe gin
1 oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
several ozs. club soda

Combine the first four ingredients. Shake. Strain into a chilled Collins glass. Top with club soda. For a more traditional version, omit the gin and use 2 oz. Plymouth sloe gin.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Book: Five Came Back, by Mark Harris (2014)

Let’s dole out the superlatives early. Five Came Back is an essential for students of Hollywood and history, easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. In recounting the role of studio filmmakers in the Allied war effort, it represents the rare combination of a story that demands to be told and a writer who is more than up to the challenge.

The directors who chronicled World War II would not only shape how that conflict would be perceived by future generations, but how combat itself would be portrayed thereafter. Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) wisely keeps the focus on a quintet of individuals, weaving their narratives together as he follows them before, during and immediately after the war. It’s still an epic tale, touching on all branches of the service and every theater of operations. It helps that each of the five men is a larger-than-life figure, entering the military with, as Harris notes, the experience of a private but the attitude of a general.

Frank Capra, who won three Best Director Oscars in the 1930s, didn’t go to war so much as to Washington, his stint as a bureaucrat only underscoring the muddiness of his personal politics. John Ford, who joined the Navy and led the photographic unit of the OSS, would do some of the best work of his career in the heat of battle only to be sent back to Hollywood in disgrace. John Huston had scored his first triumph with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and initially regarded the war as an inconvenience to his rapid ascent. He blithely staged recreations for his “documentary” The Battle of San Pietro to get the footage he wanted, but the truths he told about the psychological traumas suffered by veterans in his long-censored Let There Be Light proved too hard for the government to hear. William Wyler welcomed these years as “an escape into reality.” His insistence on putting himself in harm’s way to follow aviators on their missions led to permanent injury, material he would then mine for the greatest film about the post-war period The Best Years of Our Lives. And the urbane George Stevens would be unable to return to his m├ętier of comedy after being one of the first American officers to provide an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities in the wake of the liberation of Dachau; he would go on to compile photograph evidence for the Nuremberg trials.

If the book has a hero it’s Lowell Mellett, the ex-newspaperman appointed as liaison between Washington and Hollywood for the Office of War Information. He played a long game, concerned about maintaining accuracy in what he acknowledged to be propaganda films and bearing the Allies’ eventual victory in mind when addressing issues of racism in how the Japanese were depicted.

Harris strips away any “Greatest Generation” sanctimony, honoring the accomplishments of these individuals while reveling in their humanity, their cantankerousness and foibles. American filmmakers coerced their British counterparts into a lopsided collaboration because U.K. efforts like Desert Victory far surpassed their own. Some things never change: audiences spurned most of these films in favor of newsreels because they craved immediacy and quickly grew bored with a steady diet of war dramas, craving the lighter fare no one felt comfortable making. While the directors lobbied to have their government-bankrolled productions considered for Academy Awards, fearful their careers would be in jeopardy once hostilities ended.

An astonishing array of talent participated in the propaganda campaign, names like Irwin Shaw and Eric Ambler popping up with regularity. Capra’s greatest contribution was an afterthought, approving the “Private Snafu” cartoons spearheaded by Chuck Jones and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. I knew Louis Hayward as a serviceable player in lesser noirs like Repeat Performance and Walk a Crooked Mile; I had no inkling he won an Academy Award and the Bronze Star for making the harrowing With the Marines at Tarawa.

But the focus remains on these five men and their films. Even under extreme conditions, they brought their personalities to bear on their work. Ford captured riveting footage for 1942’s The Battle of Midway, but couldn’t resist adding a folksy voiceover by his Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Wyler’s instinct for drama compelled him to shape The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress around a single B-17’s crew. The impact of those years transformed each of the directors, altering their subsequent films. Capra lost his way in the industry, Ford retreated to westerns, Huston gave vent to his innate cynicism. Five Came Back is a sprawling yet fleet book, compulsively readable and endlessly fascinating.