Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Movies: Silent in Seattle

One of the highlights of my trip to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was the musical accompaniment provided for The Docks of New York by Donald Sosin. Two weeks later Mr. Sosin was in Seattle, participating in the SIFF Film Center’s tribute to the Library of Congress Film Archive. I was happy to queue up to see (and hear) him again.

The protagonist of The Man Who Laughs (1928) served as visual inspiration for the Dark Knight’s nemesis the Joker; Gwynplaine has had a rictus permanently carved into his face as punishment for his father’s crimes. The opening minutes of the film based on Victor Hugo’s novel pack in an astonishing number of horrors as the now-orphaned boy butchered at the behest of a monarch rescues a blind baby from the hands of her dead mother as convicts swing from the gallows overhead. The adult Gwynplaine joins a troupe of players and capitalizes on his disfigurement as he strives to be worthy of his sightless swain’s love. When word of his noble lineage reaches the Queen, the poor fool becomes a pawn in a game he doesn’t comprehend. The film, directed by Paul Leni, is a propulsive mix of tragedy, fairy tale, and swashbuckler. Conrad Veidt’s performance as Gwynplaine is a marvel. Forced to grin maniacally no matter the circumstance, he conveys every emotion through his body language and desperately haunted eyes. Julius Molnar Jr. matches him playing the character as a child, barely capable of processing his fate but already knowing to feel ashamed.

Marion Davies’ great misfortune is having her own life conflated with that of Citizen Kane’s talentless mistress. Yes, she had a decades-long affair with William Randolph Hearst, but confusing fact and fiction is akin to thinking of Orson Welles solely as a fat man who once voiced a mechanical planet. She was one of the first great screen comediennes, evidenced by 1928’s The Patsy. Davies plays the overlooked younger daughter who reinvents herself to nab her sister’s boyfriend. Her extended sequence aping other silent stars like Lillian Gish still garners big laughs.

Mr. Sosin’s scores added to the films. During The Man Who Laughs he asked for – and got – audience participation, and his wife Joanna Seaton contributed gorgeous, ethereal vocals. The combination of semi-improvised live music and a heightened style of screen acting creates a hugely enjoyable hybrid experience that in some ways is more like theater. I’m afraid I’m hooked now.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Pegu Club

Comes now a cocktail so nice it took its name from one watering hole and bequeathed it to another, decades later and on the opposite side of the world.

Rum may have built the British Empire, but gin kept it running. A good belt being necessary for one’s upper lip to remain stiff, the gentleman’s club became home away from home for those serving under the Union Jack. One such establishment was located outside Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma. The house drink, ideal for warm weather, was described in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) as “one that has traveled, and is asked for, around the world.” That is certainly true considering that it had already appeared in Harry McElhone’s Barflies and Cocktails, published three years earlier; clearly some refugee from the British Raj had stumbled into Harry’s New York Bar in Paris and spilled the secret.

The recipe has a host of variations. Originally orange curaçao was called for. Some bartenders still prepare it that way, or suggest using Grand Marnier instead. I find that that substitution makes the drink too heavy and sweet. I opt for triple sec, specifically Cointreau. Some adherents drop the dash of orange bitters but on that score I’m a purist, the additional note a tether that allows your liqueur to blossom. I’ve seen versions that feature the addition of egg white, or use grapefruit as a garnish. And lives have been lost arguing over the correct proportion of gin to liqueur, with three-to-one favored by many but not necessarily, as you will see, by me.

What cannot be disputed is that the drink, however you prepare it, holds up. One of the vanguard New York cocktail bars is named after it. I’ve had a Pegu Club in the Pegu Club. The venue does honor to the beverage, and vice versa.

The Pegu Club

2 oz. gin
1 oz. triple sec
½ oz. lime juice
dash of Angostura bitters
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book: American Desperado, by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright (2011)

Pick any phase of underworld life in the second half of the twentieth century – the coke spoon disco years of New York in the 1970s, the Miami mayhem of the ‘80s, the spread of cartels around the globe and into politics in the ‘90s – and Jon Roberts was involved. Already featured in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, Roberts gets the sprawling, punishing epic he deserves in American Desperado.

Co-author Evan Wright also wrote Generation Kill, one of the best books about the Iraq war. Here he makes the shrewd decision to stay out of Roberts’ way and let him explain how a New York street punk ended up the primary U.S. associate of the Medellin cartel and eventually a CIA asset. Wright remains an active presence in the footnotes, vetting Roberts’ every word, pointing out which claims he can’t verify, citing chapter and verse on those he can.

Roberts, who died late last year, is honest to the point of being unnerving. He tells Wright in an early meeting, “I might be a sociopath. Most of the time I’ve been on this earth I’ve had no regard for human life. That’s been the key to my success.” He genuinely believes in the philosophy he learned from his wiseguy father: evil is stronger than good. Even the funny stories – like accidentally getting Ed Sullivan high on LSD, or the time one of the world’s great jockeys was almost mauled by Roberts’ pet cougar – have a sinister edge, and throughout the book Roberts offers grimly practical advice on a host of dark subjects, like a Heloise from Hell. When fighting, use gravity to your advantage and “no matter what, always be kicking his balls.” Roberts’ technique for disposing of a corpse has a brutal elegance worthy of Martha Stewart. Desperado is over five hundred pages long, all of them disturbing and compulsively readable.

It’s also spawned an even more alarming follow-up. Roberts openly admitted to helping dispose of the gun used to murder Meyer Lansky’s stepson in 1977. His more astonishing declaration: the triggerman, an enforcer for a Miami drug kingpin, became a CIA officer. Wright digs into the accusation in the ebook How to Get Away with Murder in America and turns up one shocker after another about an alleged underworld hit man turned counterterrorism expert who currently has ties to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. The story and Wright’s through reportage beggar the imagination. Wright summarized his findings for the Daily Beast.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Beachcomber

Sometimes you can go to the source and still come back unsatisfied.

The 1934 opening of Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, U.S.A. is usually regarded as the birthplace of tiki culture and its many attendant cocktails. But “Trader Vic” Bergeron turned it into a movement with his chain of restaurants, the first in Oakland, California. Seattle was next. I never visited the Westin Hotel location, which closed over 20 years ago. At approximately the same time Trader Vic’s made the news when Donald Trump shuttered the outpost in New York’s Plaza Hotel. Trump said he found the place “tacky.” (I’ll pause to let you think about that for a minute.) There’s still a Trader Vic’s franchise in Portland among other cities, with a slew of them in the Middle East.

I’ve got a copy of the 1972 revised edition of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. The original was published in 1947. The illustrations feature what look like gremlins monkeying around the bar, no doubt the consequence of a Mai Tai or twelve. The book is written in a pleasingly gruff style, with Vic grousing about the recent crop of newer libations (“Some of those inventions are good, but some of them are terrible; I think that most of them would blind you if you drank them.”) and declaring that his “redo” of the guide would omit “nonsense” recipes for “outdated stuff that you’ll never use” such as “Cobblers, Crustas, Fixes, Sangarees, Scaffas and Shrubs” – all of which still appear in cocktail books, with many back in vogue. A section on annoying customers has a sentence that begins: “Another wiseacre who burns me to a crisp ...”

Paging through the book, I selected a relatively simple cocktail, the Beachcomber. Vic’s version is made with shaved ice in an electric blender. Aside from opting for a low-tech preparation – a Boston shaker, sans shaved ice – I followed his instructions to the letter. Two ounces of light Puerto Rican rum, half an ounce of Cointreau, the juice of half a lime, two dashes of maraschino.

The result was distinctly ... unmemorable. The Cointreau barely got any purchase, and the maraschino didn’t register at all. I’d essentially muddied a decent rum.

A few weeks later I came across the drink in Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology. He “reformulated” Vic’s original recipe, doubling the amount of triple sec while simultaneously stepping up the maraschino. Regan’s version has a lovely balance, which you can further adjust by altering the amounts of triple sec and maraschino to taste. The Beachcomber really doesn’t qualify as a tiki drink. The recipe is too basic; hell, it features only one kind of rum. But pop a cocktail umbrella in the glass, and no one will care.

The Beachcomber

Gary Regan variation on the original “Trader Vic” Bergeron recipe

2 oz. light rum
1 oz. triple sec
¼ oz. maraschino
½ oz. fresh lime juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Miscellaneous: Silent in San Francisco

San Francisco is one of the great cities of the world, a metropolis overflowing with treats culinary and cultural. What do I know about the place? Two things: the Castro Theatre and cocktails.

Earlier this year I was in town for Noir City. This trip coincided with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The three screenings I was able to attend made the jaunt worthwhile. Mantrap (1926) is a buoyant comedy with bite, a meringue laced with bourbon. Clara Bow at her sauciest is a big-city manicurist who marries the only trader in the tiny title Canadian town. When a tenderfoot lawyer shows up, Clara sets her sights on him out of equal parts instinct and boredom. A triangle of the more tragic variety plays out in the 1929 German film The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. Brigitte Helm of Metropolis is the kept woman who falls for a virtuous young lieutenant. Their romance drives her to become a better person while he falls prey to corruption – with his commanding officer, Nina’s former lover, waiting for his opportunity to strike back.

Best of the trio was Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928), co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation. Brawny ship’s stoker George Bancroft and his crewmates have one night in the big city before they push off again; a shot of the six of them anticipating the evening’s pleasures is like a Mount Rushmore of lust. Before the party begins Bancroft saves the life of a suicidal bar girl played by the mesmerizing Betty Compson. He’s drawn to her, she’s amused by his interest in an existence she’s grown weary of, and they play roles for each other as their night together progresses. It’s a simple story told with bracing power. Each film featured live musical accompaniment, but Donald Sosin’s piano score for Docks deserves singular praise for its impact and effortless use of period songs.

The real highlight of the festival? Getting the opportunity to meet Leonard Maltin. Film critic, historian, and one of the great popularizers of motion picture art. His guides are always close at hand at Chez K, and it was a genuine thrill to spend a few moments chatting with him. (All credit is due to Rosemarie. I would have admired him from afar but the missus, an even bigger Maltin fan, walked right over and introduced herself. She’s like that.) Here’s Leonard’s take on the festival.

As for cocktails, we finally were able to bend an elbow at San Francisco’s famed Cliff House, a location in the noir favorite The Lineup. We also stopped by Tradition, the latest in the bar empire from the people behind Bourbon & Branch. It’s only a stone’s throw from B&B, offering a more relaxed atmosphere and a broad array of specialties; I recommend the A La Louisiane, with rye, Benedictine and absinthe. I also recommend the street theater. We arrived several minutes before the doors opened and spent that time watching a man search every inch of his car save the rocker panels with a crystal meth level of determination that rendered him oblivious to the fact that his pants had slipped down far enough to reveal what our genial host Eddie Muller dubbed a “triple Aykroyd” of plumber’s crack. We never learned what he was looking for, or if he found it. We had cocktails to consume.

Hey, we did do something cultural! We saw the exhibit “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier” at the de Young Museum. It highlights ingenuity not only in Gaultier’s ceaselessly inventive work – a dress from the then-impoverished designer’s debut collection employed wicker placemats – but in its staging, with stunning use of mannequins and a closing runway show. The exhibit runs through August 19.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Union Club

Posted a day early this week ...

Life could be difficult for the turn-of-the-last-century head of a local gambling combine. Your stock in trade has been declared illegal, but thanks to steep fines and rampant graft you’re able to eke out a modest living. Then one morning you wake up to discover you have a competitor. One who flat out refuses to pay off law enforcement the way you do. Who also happens to be one of the most famous lawmen of the American West.

Such was the fate of Seattle’s John Considine. A sober man in a shady profession, he used his three gambling clubs to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with in the city. Then, in November 1899, Wyatt Earp rode into town and announced that with partner Thomas Urquhart he’d be opening the Union Club on Second Avenue South near Yesler Way. Earp was no longer wearing a badge; he’d already run a saloon in the Klondike, and his reputation had been tarnished thanks to his role as referee in an 1896 prizefight in which he was accused of fraud. The public skirmish between various Seattle sporting factions affected the mayoral election and led to a brief crackdown on vice. By the time it ended Earp had long since left, his stay in the Emerald City a footnote. (As for Considine, he ended up killing the former police chief who accused him of paying for his 17-year-old contortionist mistress’s abortion and then became a theater impresario and vaudeville pioneer. But as the man said, that’s another story.)

It’s only appropriate that a Seattle-based bartender honor Wyatt Earp’s contribution to the city’s history. That bartender is Jamie Boudreau, once of Vessel and now proprietor of Canon. His Union Club cocktail is part of the noble tradition of whiskey/Campari drinks. But instead of finishing with, say, a vermouth, Jamie blends maraschino with a tart blast of orange juice for a nuanced and wholly satisfying flavor. He’s currently pouring these at Canon with rye. I enjoyed mine so much I prepared one at home with bourbon. Either way, the result will likely have you making some contortions of your own.

The Union Club

Jamie Boudreau, Seattle

2 oz. bourbon (or rye)
1.5 oz. orange juice
.5 oz maraschino
.5 oz Campari

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Miscellaneous: Words of Wisdom

Chose cinema over potatoes. I found myself watching the women’s clothes, drinking in their texture, appreciating every bite the actors put in their mouths. When one of the characters (because of some imbecility of plot) wore old clothes and pretended to be poor, I was furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal. Now I really understand why the Italian poor detest De Sica and neorealist films, and why shopgirls like heiresses and read every line in gossip columns. I mean, I understand it, and not just intellectually.

- March 1952 diary entry by author Mavis Gallant, Madrid, Spain. From the July 9 & 16, 2012 issue of the New Yorker.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Jack Rose

Gather ‘round, children. (Editor’s note: Children should not be reading Cocktail of the Week posts.) I am about to instruct you in how to make a cocktail incorrectly. Because there are times when incorrect is better than nothing.

The Jack Rose has an illustrious history. Jake Barnes downs one with George, the barman at the Hotel Crillon, in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. David Embury cites it as one of his six basic cocktails from which all goodness flows in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. The other five, for those scoring along at home, are the Martini, the Manhattan, the Daiquiri, the Sidecar and the Old-Fashioned. In the intervening years, it would seem, Mr. Rose has been lapped by the field.

By rights the drink should be an American perennial considering that the central ingredient is applejack, a domestically produced “cyder spirit” made from, you guessed it, apples. The principal producer of applejack is Laird & Company, the pride of Monmouth County, New Jersey. They counted George Washington as a loyal customer, made applejack for troops during the Revolutionary War, and have been commercially selling it since 1780.

For a time the Jack Rose was thought to be named for East Coast underworld smoothie “Bald Jack” Rose, or a Jersey City bartender known by that handle even though it wasn’t his name. In The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (1935), Albert Stevens Crockett states that the drink, when properly prepared, has the same coloring as a Jacquemot rose and should hence be the Jacque Rose. I’m with them what belly up to the bar called Occam’s Razor: the drink is made with applejack, and is rose-colored. Mystery solved.

Ingredient #1, obviously, is applejack. Embury believed that the Jack Rose’s lack of popularity even in 1948, when his book was first published, stemmed from the absence of “an apple brandy made with the same loving care as cognac.” At present, Laird’s makes a 100 proof bonded applejack that might very well have met with Embury’s approval. It packs a punch as well as a bold, crisp taste. Sadly, it’s impossible to find outside the Tri-State area. I have personally ferried bottles from the East Coast to Seattle, even though Washington State is lousy with apples. I have it on the authority of bartender extraordinaire Murray Stenson – profiled in the current issue of Imbibe magazine! – that if you don’t have Laird’s bonded, there is absolutely no point in making a Jack Rose. But I wanted one, and settled for Laird’s readily available 80 proof variety. (Note that you can substitute the French apple brandy Calvados. Also note that many bartenders will reduce the amount of applejack when lucky enough to be using Laird’s bonded.)

Ingredient #2 is lemon juice. Unless you prefer lime, as some do, to serve as bulwark against –

Ingredient #3, grenadine. Customarily it’s in equal proportion to the citrus, which certainly would make sense if I were using, say, the house-made grenadine at the Zig Zag Café. I’ve sampled that on its own, and would drink it by the glass, pour it on top of ice cream, fill a waterbed with it. I’d have considered that amount had I prepared my own grenadine by combining pomegranate syrup and superfine sugar. What I had on hand, though, was the bottled kind, perfectly acceptable by the spoonful but a little too cloying in this quantity. And as I said, I really wanted a Jack Rose. So I adjusted accordingly, and that’s reflected in the recipe below. The cocktail was still a satisfying one, the bite of the apple evident over the tartness of the lemon, the grenadine providing color and a dash of sweetness. My advice is to have a Jack Rose made the right way, by a professional and with Laird’s finest product, to understand why Embury placed it his pantheon. Once you do, even pale imitations will occasionally hit the spot.

The Jack Rose (beggars not choosers version)

2 oz. applejack
.75 oz. lemon juice
.50 oz. grenadine

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Book: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (2012)

It’s Nick Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, and he hasn’t bought his wife Amy a gift yet. He’s done nothing lately but bring turmoil into her life; after they both lose their formerly high-flying New York media jobs, Nick insists that they move back to his Missouri hometown so he can tend to his ailing parents. They’re stretched thin financially, Amy’s out of her comfort zone and far from her own doting family, things around the McMansion they can barely afford have been tense. And, lest we forget, Nick hasn’t bought an anniversary present.

Turns out he won’t need one. Because Amy vanishes without a trace. People are initially sympathetic, but suspicion always falls on the husband. And Nick’s attitude doesn’t exactly bolster his claims of innocence: “My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers. Country fingers. Flyover fingers untrained in the intricate, dangerous work of solving Amy.”

Already I fear I’ve given too much away. Permit me some brevity: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is the book of the summer, and it deserves to be.

It’s an expansive book, fearlessly anatomizing the woes that can undermine a marriage while laying bare the effects of the Great Recession on individuals, communities and entire industries. Like Flynn’s previous novels it’s astonishingly dark, but every action is grounded in consistent psychological behavior. Her authorial voice, brazenly confident and frequently seductive, is a huge ally; Flynn is always ready with a joke or a sly line as she leads you further into the shadows. (Non-spoiler alert: she sticks the landing, too.)

Most impressive of all is Flynn’s structural skill. Elements that initially seem contrived are most definitely intentional, paying off in shocking and unexpected ways. I found myself pumping the brakes even as I tore through the final pages, hoping to attenuate the suspense and lingering over every last uncomfortable moment. Gone Girl is racking up accolades, huge sales, and comparisons to the work of masters like Patricia Highsmith. Read it and find out why.