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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

Some of the best reporting on the state of the world is in Australian cookbooks.

The Hip Gift of the Year


I live on the dividing line between two worlds in Sydney: Kings Cross with its tawdry burlesque joints and sex shops (with window displays of risque Santa Suits), fast food joints, weird buskers, hookers and drug addicts on the streets and the affluent Potts Point with its luxury apartments, gourmet deli’s and gift shops with ironic, infantile toys for adults, fashionably impractical homewares, and books as decorating details. I’m mulling over the idea of what to give the people I’ll be spending Christmas with, and I’m leaning towards liquid gifts: coffee beans, tea leaves, vodka. Everyday luxuries, not something smartly useless wrapped up in shiny paper. But just to keep my options open I wandered into a few stores when I went out for coffee this morning. Princess Pink and Baby Blue are the colours of the season and the couple of shops I went into seemed to be stacking up gifts for a baby shower: fluffy pink bedroom slippers ($50), Prada soaps in a dusty pink box ($70), and the hip blue object of the moment is Greg and Lucy Malouf’s new cookbook, Turquoise. Its bright turqoise cover so prettily accents the other baby blue gift-giving opportunities arrayed around it.


Greg Malouf is an Australian chef of Lebanese heritage who has celebrated and adapted Middle Eastern food for Australians. His cookbooks and spice mixes are indispensible tools for chefs and home cooks. Lucy Malouf, his ex-wife, is a writer and editor. Eating at Greg’s restaurant Mo Mo, in Melbourne, gave me the understanding of how food in restaurants relates to home cooking. How the grace and courtesy that I’d experienced as a guest at the homes of Lebanese and Iranian friends in Los Angeles and the ceremonial charm of the traditional food is preserved but turned into artistry. The cuisine has been adapted for a new world with the skill and inspiration of an accomplished chef without diminishing or commercializing the generosity of spirit that’s at the base of these refined ancient cultures. I was with my musician friend, Kelly Salloum, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Her family is originally from Lebanon and she grew up in Canada and Kelly steeped herself in the traditions her family brought from the Middle East. She has the soul and well-crafted musicianship of a Bill Evans era jazz musician, but for the last decade has explored and documented the traditional music of cultures from around the world. She learned Sanskrit for her ethnomusicology degree and sings in Arabic, her jazz album is dedicated to the great Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum. But Kelly is also a gracious and generous hostess well-known for the parties she hosts with tables laden with the food she learned to make growing up, from the same kind of family recipes handed down to Greg Malouf.


Kelly wanted to eat at Mo Mo because Saha, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s previous book based on their travels through Syria and Lebanon, matched the itinerary for her own travels. When I was flipping through her copy of the book it was the writing that caught me. The dazzling photography and design of Greg and Lucy Malouf’s books might make them a merchandiser’s dream, but the text in Saha is equally engaging. The stories the Malouf’s tell are a lament for a threatened civilisation. They visited Beirut as the period of peace that followed its civil war was coming to an end, and they quote articles by Robert Fisk, the Middle Eastern correspondent for the English newspaper The Independent, who genuinely loves and admires the people he’s lived among for the last quarter century. Fisk catches the threads of a world unravelling and the complexities and contradictions of wars fought over ancient beliefs and rivalries from the point of view of the individuals who are caught up in it. A couple of weeks ago he wrote about people moving out of their homes in Beirut.


So where do we go from here? I am talking into blackness because there is no electricity in Beirut. And everyone, of course, is frightened. A president was supposed to be elected today. He was not elected. The corniche outside my home is empty. No one wants to walk beside the sea.


When I went to get my usual breakfast cheese manouche there were no other guests in the café. We are all afraid. My driver, Abed, who has loyally travelled with me across all the war zones of Lebanon, is frightened to drive by night. I was supposed to go to Rome yesterday. I spared him the journey to the airport.


It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a country that sits on plate glass. It is impossible to be certain if the glass will break. When a constitution breaks – as it is beginning to break in Lebanon – you never know when the glass will give way.


People are moving out of their homes, just as they have moved out of their homes in Baghdad. I may not be frightened, because I’m a foreigner. But the Lebanese are frightened. I was not in Lebanon in 1975 when the civil war began, but I was in Lebanon in 1976 when it was under way. I see many young Lebanese who want to invest their lives in this country, who are frightened, and they are right to frightened. What can we do?


Robert Fisk. The Independent. November 24, 2007


Taking Lessons from Justin North


So what can and should chefs not just in Australia but around the world do to help ease the food crisis, and to protect our land and produce? We must consider sustainability.


My restaurant’s menu takes into consideration particular farming practices and how they affect the environment. We understand more about our produce: where it is from, how it is farmed, raised or caught. Rather than buying from aquaculture farms that dredge their scallops from the ocean floor, for instance, I buy from ones where divers collect the scallops by hand.


Thinking this way is vital if chefs want to avoid a future where all of the best and most interesting produce are protected species. This means changing our practices and demanding that our suppliers change as well.


Justin North. Op-Ed piece. The New York Times. July 29, 2007.


Justin North concluded his New York Times story by saying that Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard had told farmers facing irrigation shortages to pray for rain. “The Murray cod deserves better than that, and so do all Australian food lovers,” he wrote. Political change is swift in Australia. There was an election one Saturday a few weeks ago and by Monday a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was at work and his first act was to ratify the Kyoto protocol. In his second week as Prime Minister he was one of leaders from 190 nations attending the United Nations conference in Bali to assess what must be done now to arrest the ravages of climate change. On December 3 The New York Times carried an Editorial on the importance having the huge developing economies of India and China as part of the negotiations.


Whatever happens, China and India have to be part of the equation. Along with other developing countries, both were exempted from making any commitments to reduce emissions at Kyoto on grounds that the industrialized countries bore the heaviest historical responsibility. Given the extraordinary growth in both countries, that argument is no longer sustainable. But it will be much easier to get China, India and others to adopt aggressive policies if the United States is also on board.


The story at the top of the “Most E-Mailed” list today on The New York Times concerns fish being farmed in toxic waters in China.


“For 50 years,” said Wang Wu, a professor at Shanghai Fisheries University, “we’ve blindly emphasized economic growth. The only pursuit has been G.D.P., and now we can see that the water turns dirty and the seafood gets dangerous. Every year, there are food safety and environmental pollution accidents.”


Environmental problems plaguing seafood would appear to be a bad omen for the industry. But with fish stocks in the oceans steadily declining and global demand for seafood soaring, farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is the future. And no country does more of it than China, which produced about 115 billion pounds of seafood last year.


China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.


David Barboza. The New York Times. December 15, 2007.


Justin North’s first cookbook centred on the farmers and purveyors who provide the produce he uses at his Sydney restaurant Becasse. But alongside the deep beauty of his food and his enthusiasm for the quality of the produce he uses ran a quiet and warmly intelligent call to action on the problems facing farmers in Australia today: the cleanliness and sustainability of our oceans, the role of scientific innovation in food production, the lack of water, wild and unrealiable changes in weather patterns affecting crops and creeping salinity in the land. His new cookbook, French Lessons, (edited by Lucy Malouf) is a guide to the techniques of French cooking, adapted, he writes, for the modern taste for “lighter, more delicate and intensely flavoured foods”. It has no shortcuts. “It’s important to realise that good food takes a level of care.”


Prime Minister Rudd and his agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, have both been visiting rural areas and talking about the hardships climate change is causing for farmers. On ABC radio the Prime Minister quoted an Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics paper which has projected the effects of climate change on agriculture. “By 2030, we face the possibility of a 10 per cent decline in agricultural production. By 2050, the possibility of a 20 per cent decline in agricultural production against a no-change basis. Then, up to a 63 per cent decline in Australian rural exports by 2030, and up to a 79 per cent decline by 2050.”


In the same radio report Chris Ulhmann asked the agriculture minister to comment on the paper.


CHRIS UHLMANN: The report points out that Australia’s agricultural sector has adjusted an adapted continuously to changes in the natural resource base, including climate variability. In future, it says, Australia will need crops that are water efficient, and that have high tolerance to pests, diseases and salinity. And that presents another problem for Tony Burke because those crops are likely to be genetically modified. He says he will be consulting farmers about it.


TONY BURKE: There’s no doubt there’s some science out there which says some of the climate change issues we’re dealing with, GM, will provide part of the puzzle in dealing with that. It’s still the case, particularly in Western Australia and Tasmania, there’s some particular concerns from farmers there that they want to preserve a competitive market advantage that they see by not endorsing GM. And that’s why the consultation that we’re going through is real.


Australia’s second largest supermarket chain, Coles, has just been acquired by Wesfarmers, a century old company that began as a Western Australian farmers co-operative that’s now a conglomerate that includes home building supplies and electronics stores, fertiliser manufacturers, coal mining operations and an insurance business that includes rural financing. It has brought in an advisor from Britain who applied WalMart methods to lifting the fortunes of an English supermarket chain. ABC news reported that a representative from Wesfarmers talked to the Western Australian Farmers Federation about bringing more meat produced in Western Australia into supermarkets there. Wesfarmers would like to increase local meat supplies, which make up 40% of the current supplies, but claim that they’re unable to acquire the volume of meat they need locally. “It would be very nice to be able to say that 100 per cent of meat in Coles stores in Western Australia came from Western Australia ... but I doubt that that’s ever going to be achievable because of the issues of supply and demand and price and quality,” Keith Kessell told the ABC.


Justin North writes that among the lessons we can learn from the French is their approach to purchasing produce directly from regional farmers, not supermarkets.


Another of my goals in French Lessons is to encourage you, the reader and home cook, to develop a similar approach to food and to cooking to what you find in France. That is, to focus far more on quality and freshness than on convenience when it comes to selecting your produce. In many Fench towns, people shop for food on a daily basis, and fresh produce markets rather than giant supermarkets are still the preferred option, wherever possible. While I understand that not many people have the time or opportunity to shop daily, I do really encourage you to spend more time shopping at markets and greengrocers, to support your local butchers and fishmongers, to spend the extra dollar on organic and free-range rather than mass produced foodstuffs. Not only will your dinner taste better, but you will also be doing your part to keep alive the dream of the small, local and passionate producers who so greatly need your support.


Justin North. Introduction. French Lessons.



 


 


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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

The fall-out continues from the Rolling Stone cigarette ad masqueraded as a feature or vice versa.  Now a coalition of indies has gone public in an open letter to the magazine about their anger over the incident.


Also, in the first part of any Ike Turner obit is his deplorable treatment of Tina Turner and while there’s no justifying that, it’s also ignorant to forget that despite what kind of horrible person he was, he did have an important impact on music as detailed in this BBC article/tribute.


 


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Friday, Dec 14, 2007

Bookforum linked to this article about the effects of text messaging on traditional courtship practices in the Philippines. I know that sounds fascinating, and you’re probably not even reading this sentence because you eagerly clinked on the link. But as I never have understood the allure of texting, I found the story illuminating.


Clearly it makes sense when to send messages when they are cheaper than talking, as they are in the Philippines, as the article points out. I don’t know if that is true with the typical American cell phone plans, but it ought to be. I have long wished there would be a plan that would allow nothing but text messages, because I’m not much for chitchat—when forced to use the phone, I generally just want the pertinent information, two or three of the the five Ws maximum. And I don’t think I would want a smartphone, which seems like too much technology for my simple needs. I think I need the stupidphone.


Anyway, Randy Jay Solis, the article’s author, suggests that texting is apparently well-suited for courtship because it creates an extra-intimate space in which the communication takes place.


Texting allows for depth in the courtship stage, an efficient way to exchange a variety of important, intimate, and personal topics and feelings. “The mobile phone screen is able to create a private space that even if you are far from each other physically, the virtual space created by that technology is apparent,” Arnel [a random Philippine teen] explains. “No one can hear you say those things or no one else can read them, assuming that it is not allowed to be read or seen by others.”



This is probably obvious to everybody who has ever texted, but it never occurred to me that this would be so, that technology would produce a virtual space that users would regard as more intimate rather than one further step removed from intimacy. I usually construe this kind of technology as a filter, a level of protection, a way to deny presence, whereas it probably can seem more intimate than a whisper in the ear when satellites are recruited into bringing you into a sweet nothing.


Solis points out how texting facilitates the ability of strangers to meet and become intimate whenever boredom strikes. But this intimacy, perhaps because it is technologically amplified, becomes more addictive.


Texting answers the need for a sustained connection necessary to increase and maintain intimacy, but it has also made couples more dependent on each other. “It became a habit,” *Emmy explains. Partners text each other as often as they can and have a compulsion to keep the communication constantly moving. One respondent attributed this to the “unwritten rule of texting.” Clara elaborates, “Once a person has texted you, you have to reply. If you don’t reply, the person will automatically think you ignored him or her on purpose. So you have to reply no matter what, even when you really have nothing to say.”
Since most of the couples initiating a romantic relationship do not have the luxury to meet up in person or talk over the phone regularly, the frequency of texting becomes a distinct indication of their seriousness about the relationship. “To commit is to be there for the person, 24/7. Texting helps in achieving that despite of the barriers in time and distance,” *Von explains.


This pinpoints what is the probably the main reason I have resisted getting a phone all the years, beyond Luddite inertia. I’m a little bit terrified of this kind of dependency and compulsion, of being unable to ignore a message without guilt or to go without sulking when my message garners no response. It’s bad enough with email—I had to abandon instant messaging for the same reason. When the messages are flowing back and forth in rhythm, its like you are wired into your correspondent, but then if there is a gap, it’s like a betrayal, like being abandoned. I would get too impatient and paranoid in the delays, as though I were waiting for someone to pass me the crack pipe. It may takes more maturity than I can muster to presume innocence when an urgent or intimate message goes out there and just hangs, and it seems like the texting life would be filled with such mishaps and emotional misfires. In general, communications technology promotes impulsive immediacy over consideration, yielding a fraught, fragile intimacy that is only as a deep as the last message. All intimacy requires continual reciprocal contact, but accelerating that contact may be more than our limbic systems can handle. That, anyway, would seem to be part of the argument of an essay Solis cites, Heidegger, Habermas, and the Mobile Phone by George Myerson. According to these notes Myerson argues that “mobile communication is fragmented, accelerated, highly commoditized, and ultimately meaningless.” He suggests that mobile phones are a critical step in the effort to meter all communication, to translate it into a purchasable object, to have it measurable in money. It ceases to be communication and instead becomes a species of exchange. That argument verges on a semantic trick, and my susceptibility to it is probably rooted in my bias for pragmatic talk, but it still seems an apt description for texted testimonials, and their cousins, the messages exchanged on social networking sites that are little more than acknowledgments that people are scrutinizing one another. It seems curmudgeonly to complain about there being more intimacy in the world thanks to technology, I know. But ultimately, the way communication is quantified may be what seems so sinister about the heightened intimacy of texting; it turns the freedom of love into a kind of dope high purchasable on demand. And our bodies are supplanted by the devices we use to reach one another, the ones that let us be everywhere at once, and nowhere.


 


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Friday, Dec 14, 2007

From the LA Times last month:


Under the Dramatists Guild contract for playwrights (first agreed to in 1919 and largely unchanged to this day), no changes can be made to a script without the consent of the author, who must also be involved in selecting the cast and director.


The studio bosses insisted, however, that the process of creating movies was fundamentally different and more like an industrial assembly line designed to maximize profits (this predated the notion of film as art). The way they saw it, a playwright sold a product while a screenwriter sold a service.


Oooh. Where does it come from, this idea that screenwriting is, somehow, not real writing? That the screenplay itself is not a singular art form? It’s not considered unusual, is it, for a writer to pen a play simply for the purpose of writing that play. Can a writer not also pen a film script for the exact same purpose, simply for the existence of the script, the creation of a story in a particular structure and style? Or does a screenplay exist only to be filmed? This would appear to be the case when looking back at the evolution of the writer in Hollywood.


Sean Mitchell’s LA Times piece attempts a look at both sides of the story here. I don’t know if I agree with his approach, negatively slanted against the writer, and I don’t know if his arguments regarding early Hollywood writers hold too much weight (at least, I found he could have chucked in a few more verifiable stats), but it does get one thinking.


Writers made this uneasy bargain decades ago, choosing, as humans often do, money over principle. The first playwrights and authors who came west in the 1920s, answering the demand for scripts, discovered that in Hollywood they could make five to 10 times what they could earn for a play or a novel. Who cared about ownership or copyright protection?


So the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the sons? Because artists chose to allow themselves to be exploited in the 1920s, doesn’t mean that artists today should still be paying the price. What if Mr. Chandler read that? Mitchell continues:


As long as there’s enough money to go around, writers can afford to forget what they gave up in the way of artistic rights and can live well while working within the system. It’s only when some new studio math or unforeseen media expansion alters the financial equation, as is happening now, that their relative powerlessness is again exposed—to their understandable consternation.



Understandable is an understatement. Writers in Hollywood have been cheated for years, the expansion of the Internet and home video markets have simply paved the way for Hollywood to screw them in new and exciting ways. If they don’t fix the problem now, writers will continue to lose. But Mitchell doesn’t appear altogether optimistic:


DVD percentages aside, it’s hard to imagine how this awkward reality is going to change any time soon based on the historical record and hegemony of big media.


So the beast is too big, don’t bother fighting? That’s not what Hollywood has taught me over the years. One man can make a difference says John Briley’s Oscar-winning Gandhi screenplay, Steven Zaillian’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenplay, Eric Roth’s Oscar-winning Forrest Gump screenplay, and, my golly, doesn’t the list go on.


Speaking of Mr. Chandler ... from his essay, “Writers in Hollywood”:


Its conception of what makes a good picture is still as juvenile as its treatment of writing talent is insulting and degrading. Its idea of “production value” is spending a million dollars dressing up a story that any good writer would throw away. Its vision of the rewarding movie is a vehicle for some glamorpuss with two expressions and eighteen changes of costume, or for some male idol of the muddled millions with a permanent hangover, six worn-out acting tricks, the build of a lifeguard, and the mentality of a chicken-strangler. Pictures for such purposes as these, Hollywood lovingly and carefully makes. The good ones smack it in the rear when it isn’t looking.


Oh, I hope the picketing writers of today are holding their placards with similar sensibilities.


To finish up, I’m recommending William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade (Grand Central, 1989) [especially the bit where Robert Redford suggests Goldman take a look at an alternate script of All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron], John Irving’s My Movie Business (Random House, 2000), and Alice Walker’s phenomenal The Same River Twice (Simon & Schuster, 1997), in which the author looks back at the film version of The Color Purple ten years on.


 


 


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007


For the weekend beginning 14 December, here are the films in focus:


I Am Legend [rating: 6]


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.  read full review…


Margot at the Wedding [rating: 7]


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference.


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.  read full review…


Alvin and the Chipmunks [rating: 2]


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less.


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.  read full review…


Look [rating: 7]


Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film.


There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching. read full review…


The Singing Revolution [rating: 7]


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region.


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.  read full review…


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