Sunday, April 25, 2010
Anna (Morena Baccarin), leader of the visitors in “V”
I never miss an episode of “Lost,” “Fringe,” or “V.” Although my wife and I are both left/liberal, we watch both MSNBC and FOX News. Melissa thinks it’s important to listen to the other side.
It can get tiresome because “Lost,” “Fringe,” “V” and MSNBC vs. FOX are all the same show: they’re all about two radically opposing forces gearing up for war, and possibly the apocalypse.
“Lost” is hard to summarize, but in very, very general terms it involves a mysterious island, and there is a guy named Jacob (who is now dead, don’t ask) and another guy who dresses in black. If the Man in Black leaves the mysterious island it appears that the universe is going to go kabluey. So all the stars and co-stars of the show, living and dead, are choosing up sides and war is approaching soon, because there are only five episodes left (out of 121).
“Fringe” is a tale of parallel universes. There are two worlds with the same people, cities, buildings, landscapes, etc. But things don’t happen in exactly the same way in the two universes, for example, there is still a World Trade Center in the other universe, and Leonard Nimoy has a great office in it.
One of the regulars on the show is dead in the universe he lives in and alive in the universe he doesn’t live in. We’ve known this a long time, but he just found out about this last week, and boy was he pissed off! Anyway, a lot of jerks are messing with stuff they should leave alone and it seems likely that the two universes are going to smack against each other and everything is going to go kabluey. As there were two Leonard Nimoys in the last “Star Trek” that means there are four Leonard Nimoys and that is just too many, no matter how much you like him, and probably too many even for him.
In “V” a bunch of huge flying saucers hover over many of the world’s leading cities. The aliens, who are called V’s are presenting themselves as visitors who want to share their technology with Earth because they are nice, but actually they are planning world domination and human annihilation. They all look great, but underneath their human exteriors, they are actually disgusting lizard-like creatures. There is a growing resistance called the Fifth Column (I’m not making this up!) and they are led by Elizabeth Mitchell, who perished in “Lost” along with her reputation as a good actress, a priest, a turncoat V, and a terrorist. A battle is heating up between the Fifth Column and the V’s and things are about to go kabluey.
On Fox News there is a guy named Sean Hannity and he honestly believes that Barack Obama doesn’t have the credentials necessary to be President, as he was only a community organizer with ten minutes of governmental experience. Sarah Palin, who dropped out of various schools and one governorship, has what it takes. And he, Hannity, who dropped out of NYU and Adelphi to become a general contractor and a bartender in Santa Barbara, has what it takes to make these kinds of profound socio-political judgment calls. And of course, Obama is a radical socialist terrorist communist who wants to take away all your money, your freedoms, your right to bear arms, arm bears, leaving you totally broke and forcing you to ask the government for permission to do anything you want to do with the money you don’t have, because you paid it all in taxes. Now this is a bit odd, because Hannity seems like a very smart guy who can throw a football really well.
But Hannity’s behavior makes perfect sense if you pay attention to the name of the weekly show he had until last year: “Hannity’s America.” You see, Hannity is in America, just not the SAME America that, say, Rachel Maddow lives in, i.e., the one with facts. He is in the other, parallel universe, and in that one, there is another President Obama, who is a total moron and the chairman of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin fan club. If you find this hard to believe, let me PROVE it to you. If you watch the end of every episode of Keith Olbermann’s show on MSNBC, you will notice that it ends with breaking glass. Olbermann pretends to be tossing his papers at the screen, but he can’t mask what is really going on--Hannity is throwing one of his footballs at Olbermann from his parallel universe.
The leader of the V’s is an incredibly beautiful woman named Anna, who comes out of nowhere, and becomes the most famous woman in the world overnight. She gives hypnotic speeches that dazzle the faithful. Anna gives special media access to TV journalist Chad Decker, with the proviso that he not ask any questions that would put the V’s in a bad light. Although Anna is pure evil, trying to destroy the world and every human being on it, Decker doesn’t see any reason to nose around, and he readily agrees. (Note: Chad is played by Scott Wolf, who was on “Party of Five” with “Lost” star Matthew… FOX! Coincidence?)
One of the most popular characters on “Lost” is John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). Locke is a man of faith, an inspirational character. But this season, the Man in Black is using Locke’s body. He looks exactly like Locke, but he is a very scary guy. Sometimes he turns into a black smoke monster and murders people by the gross (as opposed to Jacob’s benevolent white tornado, which only kills grime).
From their vantage point in Hannity’s American parallel universe, Mitch McConnell and the Tea Partiers have correctly identified Barack Obama as the Black Man who is actually the Man in Black—he may look just like Barack Obama, but he is actually Osama bin Laden. This is why people often seem to slip up and call him Osama. These aren’t slip-ups so much inter-reality flare-ups between parallel worlds, similar to what we are seeing more and more in the sideways world of “Lost” in Season 6.
Osama/Obama has slipped through a “Fringe”-style cosmological wrinkle between the other universe along with the other Nancy Pelosi, who was really getting a lot of stuff done on that side. The Republicans were stunned by their sudden ability to round up votes as well they should have been. THEY WEREN’T THE SAME PEOPLE!
Another continuing trope of “Lost” is the idea of “others.” First you meet others that are the people like you who were in the back side of the plane. Then there are some other others, that are different from the first others. In fact there are some other other others, and this season we found out about some other other other others, that live in a temple, and possibly some other other other other others, that whisper. Anyway, you get my meaning: there are so many others, it’s hard to figure out who you can trust. The only thing that’s clear is that there are lots of people that are not like you, they are heavily armed, and you don’t know what the hell is going on.
And that’s as good a description as any of the America presented every night on MSNBC and Fox News.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Once I got a job writing the press materials for a movie made by one of my favorite filmmakers, but he was known as a stickler, so I was worried there were going to be a lot of rewrites. In the end he just said, “It’s fine. But take out all the exclamation points. I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who talks in exclamation points.”
I thought of this when I heard that Film Forum is putting on a retrospective of the films of the Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth, maker of “Gregory’s Girl,” “Local Hero,” “Housekeeping,” and “Comfort and Joy,” among other films. Forsyth is as good an example as any of someone who doesn’t speak in exclamation points. He makes what most people would call “small” movies, but they are anything but. They are unostentatious, certainly, but they have a peculiar humor that sneaks up on you. Elements of his films are so absurd, bizarre and unexpected, and often mysteriously enchanting, particularly “Local Hero.”
If you don’t know his work, take a look at this “trailer” for “Gregory’s Girl.” It’s not a trailer in the ordinary sense, just one scene, and it’s by no means one of my favorite Forsyth scenes, but it will give you an idea. Don’t look at the “Local Hero” trailer unless you have already seen the film and want to see how a trailer can convince you not to see a great movie.
Years ago, I did the publicity for a Forsyth’s, debut feature, “That Sinking Feeling,” which came out in this country after the success of “Gregory’s Girl” and “Local Hero.” The Film Forum festival is not meant to be comprehensive, but I was disappointed that this movie wasn’t included, as it isn’t available on DVD here, and can only be seen on a PAL import or by paying $40 for a vintage VHS tape. Perhaps it plays on cable, but as far as I know, the movie mainly exists here in the memories of the people who saw it, and that’s too bad because it’s a gem.
The story is about a bunch of unemployed teenagers in Glasgow who decide to steal sinks from a local plumber’s warehouse. The plan is extremely intricate, involving, among other things, having two of the boys dress up as women to distract the guards, and a drug that will knock out a driver so they can use his van for their getaway vehicle. The boys rehearsed elaborate semaphore-like arm gestures, so they can communicate soundlessly during the heist. I have fond memories of them practicing the one for “Start Loading” (it sounded more like “STAHRT LOH-dn”) over and over and over. (Of course the joke was that when they actually executed the caper and did the “STAHRT LOH-dn” gesture, one kid had no idea what it meant). There was also the boy who brought out a toilet instead of a sink and is sternly told that “We agreed we wouldn’t take these as they’d be too easy to trace!” I love his response: “But it would be a pairfect gift for me mum!”
Fencing the sinks turns out to be a bit harder than the crew had planned, however one did find a home at an art gallery as a Duchampian found object. The sleeping potion worked a little too well on the driver, and a doctor predicted he wouldn’t wake up for decades. The nurse becomes very excited, noting that the driver would be a billionaire after all those years of sick pay.
I miss this movie. I hope someone gets around to putting it out on DVD here. When technology shifts from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray and beyond, there are too many movies that get left by the wayside, and that’s a shame.
But it’s “Local Hero” that is most people’s favorite Bill Forsyth films, and as great as it is, I think one of the major reasons people love it so much is that it ends in such a stirring way, with Knopfler’s “Going Home” theme. It sends you out of the theatre with this intensely bittersweet feeling of sadness and elation. The movie is funny and enchanting all the way through, but I think it’s the ending that sticks with you the most. None of the other Forsyth films have anything like this. Forsyth told me that it was producer David Putnam who said the movie should end with a “happy song.” I think Forsyth was ultimately very pleased with it, but I don’t think it’s an idea he would have come up with on his own. It’s his one exclamation point in a career without them, but in this case, I’m glad it’s there.
Here’s a wee video recently done about Bill for his Scottish Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
EMBRYONIC CELEBRITY: The fame of a pre-born child of celebrity parents begins after the pregnancy is announced in the mass media. This is the only celebrity cycle without a name requirement.
NEONATAL CELEBRITY: Once the children of the very famous are born and named, their fame shoots off the charts. Extra credit for cool names like Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt and Suri Cruise.
FAMOUS IN YOUR OWN MIND: Each journey must begin with the first step.
CULT CELEBRITY comes from being unknown, aside from a small group of adoring cognoscenti. Cult Celebrity is precarious, as it often can drift upwards into actual fame, disqualifying cult status.
EARNED FAME: Years of training, hard work, persistence, talent, and good luck that pay off.
OVERNIGHT CELEBRITY: With a little bit of luck you can hop on the express train from no-name to instant acclaim.
SOPHOMORE SLUMP FAME TRIAL: The first test of a celebrity’s staying power. Repeating the work in “Overynight Celebrity” or “Earned Fame” will tag the celebrity as a one-trick pony. Change things up and some may say they preferred the first album/movie/performance/show/novel/vice-presidential candidacy better.
GOLD STANDARD FAME: Examples include Meryl Streep, Mariano Rivera, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Sondheim, Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Joey Chestnut.
SHAPE-SHIFTING FAME: Just when you’ve had it up to here with Madonna, she serves up a new and improved model.
REALITY SHOW FAME: Eat rats, lose fat, sing pitchy, act bitchy, skydive, exchange wives, design clothes, give a rose, eat a cookie, grope Snookie.
WEIRD FAME: I don’t know who Heidi Montag is but she had ten plastic surgeries at one go.
REFLECTED FAME: If you be someone that they love… love someone who is.
BREAKDOWN CELEBRITY: Drugs, alcohol and bizarre behavior are usually forgivable, and can be plusses. Not so spousal abuse or using the “N” word, and Anti-Semitic slurs, or child abuse (unless you were Michael Jackson). Other negatives include robbing a gas station, public masturbation. Murder is probably the worst.
BREAKDOWN COMEBACK: In America, we believe that everybody deserves a second chance. Even total assholes.
RELAPSE FAME: What goes up often comes down again. And up again. And down again…
COMEBACK AFTER NEVER GOING AWAY: You’ve been working steadily and doing great work all these years? Really? We forgot all about you. Welcome back. Oh and… here’s your Oscar.
LEGEND: After enough Lifetime Achievement awards, people stop paying much attention to what you do, because they already know it’s sublime. (Remember last week’s post? Just like pizza from Grimaldi’s.)
DECEASED CELEBRITY: You may be gone, Elvis, Marilyn, and Bogie, but your brand lives on.
POST-DEMISE COMEBACK: That James Cameron sure can do anything.
Sunday, April 04, 2010
As I’m sure most of Brooklyn pizza-lovers have heard, Patsy Grimaldi will be returning in March to his coal-fired oven at the site of the current Grimaldi’s pizzeria. He’s going to call it Juliana’s after his late mother. With such a happy ending to a sad story, I thought it was worth a reprint of my blog post from April of 2010. Now if only the tourists will keep lining up for the Grimaldi’s next door (although I’m not so sure they’ll be opening too soon), so that we can get our old neighborhood joint back!
Some might say this story is just a real-life version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It is that, but to me it is more about the question: “What’s the value of a name?”
This question has a lot of resonance for the movie business, and I’ll get into that next week.
My apartment building in Brooklyn is directly across the street from Grimaldi’s, one of the most famous Pizzerias in the world. People come from all over the globe to stand in long lines. (I took the above picture through my window yesterday afternoon.) Once inside, they put up with the rude waiters and uncomfortable seating for the opportunity to dine on pizza that is considered one of the best in the city, if not everywhere. Last week, no less than Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama ate there, setting off a tabloid controversy over whether Michelle said that it was better than Chicago pizza. (She didn’t.)
Even though it’s only a few yards away, my wife Melissa and I almost never patronize the place and neither does anybody we know in the building or neighborhood. Take a look at the reviews from locals on MenuPages, and New York Magazine’s 2009 list of famous New Yorkers choosing their favorite Pizza; only one, John Turturro, picks Grimaldi’s. If Melissa and I want take-out pizza, we get it from Fascati’s, on Henry Street.
Patsy Grimaldi learned how to make coal-fired brick oven pizza from his uncle, Patsy Lancieri, at age ten. Lancieri, who himself had trained with the man credited with opening the first pizzeria in America in 1905, opened Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem in 1931.
Sometime in the early 90’s, I’m assuming after Lancieri retired, the name “Patsy’s” was sold to a company who set about franchising it, and Patsy Grimaldi felt it was time to set up a restaurant of his own. I watched excitedly as the construction proceeded, and the bright green “Patsy’s” awning go up. One day, I peeked in the door and saw Patsy and his wife Carol inside, so I went in to welcome them to the neighborhood. Patsy told me proudly about his brick oven and its importance for pizza: it gives it a unique flavor and a crisp crust. I think there were only one or two other ovens like that in the city at the time. (Now they are ubiquitous.)
When I showed up on opening night I was impressed to see it was already packed. Patsy had a good mailing list. It was full to the brim with his friends--pure, glorious, pizza-loving Brooklyn people, the kind of folks who wouldn’t be caught dead in it today. He greeted me like a son and he personally brought over my first pie. I won’t try to describe that night, but I think you all have vivid sense memories of the great sensual experiences of your life. I lost my virginity that night, pizza-wise.
The Patsy Grimaldi I knew in those days was an artist. His artist’s materials may have been humble tomatoes and dough rather than paint or celluloid, but his approach was not that different from what other Italian-Americans like Scorsese or Coppola, or any artists do. I am not being flippant here. It is about being an artisan, knowing your craft, expecting the best of yourself, and respecting your audience. Remember that Coppola is a winemaker too—and his wine is very highly regarded.
Soon after he opened, Patsy was sued by the people who owned the “Patsy’s” franchise. They didn’t think he had the right to use his own name for a pizza place. He gave in and changed his green awning to “Patsy Grimaldi’s,” but even that wasn’t good enough for them. He had to put up a third awning, “Grimaldi’s,” before the bastards left him alone.
As the fame of the restaurant grew, it was often profiled on food and travel shows, and got in a lot of international guidebooks. That’s when the long lines of tourists started to form. It didn’t matter what how cold it was or whether there was a storm, they waited outside patiently. After all, if you have taken a subway ride to Brooklyn to have an experience, you’re not going to go back to the hotel without having it. And for anybody who happened to come to the neighborhood, the perpetual lines were the best advertising a restaurant could ever get.
Patsy sold “Grimaldi’s” around 2000, when he was just shy of 70. Running a restaurant is grueling work, and I’m sure the offers he was getting were pretty high. So he decided to retire, and sold it. From that point, all the people who worked there were Russians, except for a charming gentlemen who dealt with the lines. Having Russians run Grimaldi’s wasn’t necessarily a travesty. A large part of the Italian restaurants in New York today are run by Albanians, and many are quite good.
Unfortunately, the pizza changed utterly under the new ownership. The whole point of brick oven was the crispy crust, and you couldn’t even hold this pizza properly in your hands: the liquidy glop drooped over the sides of your fingers.
As many people have written in the reviews of the site, the waiters are as hostile as prison guards. The tables are crushed so close together that it’s hard to sit in the place. One person wrote in his MenuPages review that after he told the waiter he couldn’t pull his chair out enough to sit down and wanted to move to one of the other tables, he was told “take that table or else get out of here!” Perhaps some tourists think that rude waiters are part of the authentic New York dining experience. They are wrong about all the other restaurants in the neighborhood and they are really wrong with the place that Patsy Grimaldi ran.
Why is the pizza soggy at Grimaldi’s? Call me cynical, but you can move people in and out of the place faster if you don’t bother about whether the food is perfect—or even fully cooked. And as your customers are nearly all tourists, they won’t know the difference. In fact, they will rave about it. And not just tourists--many of my New Yorker friends love Grimaldi’s pizza.
Every time Melissa and I pass the long line across the street, she starts shouting, “Bad Pizza! Bad Pizza!” Even I get embarrassed and shush her. One time a young woman happened to be walking by and asked in this sad voice, “Really?” and I was ashamed--it was if we’d spilled the beans about Santa Claus to a little kid.
Like the “Patsy’s”-owning bullies who made Patsy Grimaldi change his awning twice, the new owners of the Grimaldi’s name are franchising it far and wide: there are now Grimaldi’s in Garden City, Hoboken, Douglaston, as well as Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Texas, and soon, the Limelight Marketplace in Manhattan.
In 2006, Patsy, then 75, told Jeff Vandam of the New York Times that retirement had been a mistake. He set up shop in a food court at Aviator Sports and Recreation in southeastern Brooklyn, as part of the “Brooklyn Food Hall of Fame,” which also included offerings from Junior’s and Jacques Torres. He told the Times that training young people in the art of making pizza wasn’t easy, and that he was urgently looking for a new pizza man, telling Vandam: “I did take one day off, and somebody else made the dough,” which they shouldn’t have done.”
When Vandam’s article was published, Patsy’s food stand still had no name.