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Monday, Dec 18, 2006

For his first film for a major studio (20th Century Fox) skin flick pioneer Russ Meyer teamed up with friend Roger Ebert, to create a satirical commentary inspired by Jacqueline Susann’s trash epic. Following a fictional rock band, The Carrie Nations, the results were deemed so raunchy that the MPAA awarded the film an X. Though it made lots of money, Fox found the association with Meyer’s mammary-heavy films of the past disruptive to their reputation. After only one other film, the anarchic auteur was sent packing. Long rumored for a Criterion release, the company that once kicked its creator to the curb is now embracing this title with a full blown special edition DVD release. And the results are resplendent, instantly reviving a cult camp classic.


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Monday, Dec 18, 2006

I know I spend entirely too much time thinking about waiting in line at Duane Reade (the pharmacy chain that controls New York City). But Tim Harford’s FT column from this past weekend has given me yet another excuse to deliberate on them. Harford cites recent research into the peer effects of quick cashiers on their co-workers, marvelling at the finding that a faster worker encourages others to work faster as well, rather than prompting them to shirk and let the speedy one handle the bulk of the queue.


Duane Reade seems to dread that latter scenario, for whenever customers form a long single line, as they inevitably naturally do, the store manager will show up and berate the customers into forming separate lines at each clerk’s register, never offering a reason why customers should consent to this. (I’m always ready for civil disobediance; I look around at the other customers trying to forge bonds of consumer solidarity as we refuse to give up our sensible single line.) What inevitably happens is that someone who has just sauntered to the checkout will get in front of the fifteen or so people who have been waiting patiently in what seems to be the obviously fairer arrangement. The single line allows customers to feel comfortable in the notion that next available cashier will take the customer who arrived earliest, and no one needs to fear mistakenly getting in the line of a clerk who triple-checks every digit he punches and can’t figure out without a computer that when the total is 2.76 and he’s been handed a $5 and a penny, the necessary change requires only a single coin.


But what sets customers at relative ease is unfair to the speedy clerk, who certainly recognizes the fact that the harder he works, the more work he will do, while his fellow clerks look at the Examiner or check text messages. He seizes the single line as an opportunity to slow down: Without a long line forming at slow clerks’ specific registers, the manager won’t be able to tell who is shirking. Thus everyone has reason to go slow when there is a single line, and you soon have the situation one typically encounters at the Rockefeller Center post office—12 ultramethodical clerks working with all the alacrity of the four-corners offense while the line of customers continues to snake around the Tensabarriers.


So as anxious as it may make customers to pick a speedy clerk with little information to go on, it’s to management’s benefit to have separate lines in order to see who is really working. Not that this helps customers at all—everyone still has incentive to go slow so as to not show up their fellows, and besides, when a good cashier outperforms the others, she’ll usually be promoted away from having to run the register. If one good clerk makes the others work harder, it may be because of competition over who will escape from check-out line purgatory. (Good cashiers also reinforce their speed advantage by generally attracting efficient customers—the ones who have their wallet ready and move quickly themselves—the fast cashiers are very good at expressing intolerance for slow customers; ones who are talking on the phone or who wait until the last minute to try to fish out thirteen pennies from their purse.) Retailers know that slow, methodical cashiers make fewer mistakes with money than those who work quickly, and usually it’s to their advantage to find such people to work the registers. This may be apocryphal, but my father claims that Kmart used to administer an IQ test to their workers, barring anyone who scored above a certain level from running the till.


All of this makes good cashiers something of an anomaly, small miracles in the grim world of retail. I tend to become obsessive about them; I know who the fast clerks are at the Key Foods where I grocery shop, and I have often thought about aligning my shopping routines to their work schedule.


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006


David Lynch would like you to know that Hollywood will drive you to the brink of insanity and that it certainly cannot be trusted. In fact, it could even kill you. Not exactly a subtle way of saying “up yours” to the very industry that professes to love him while still restraining him, but it’s a clever platform from which to launch his latest, most infuriatingly challenging film, Inland Empire.


Mr. Lynch would also like to share with you his penchant for eerily billowing red velvet curtains. And maybe he harbors a pervy little “thing” for lesbian kisses. The point is David Lynch is weird. At least that seems to be the popular opinion. Generally, there is a point to his eccentricity that is simultaneously elusive and obvious: take for example Lynch’s masterful juxtaposition of the benign comings and goings of denizens of a small town called Twin Peaks with the absolute evil of a supernatural force involved in the murder of a homecoming queen. He is able to mix normal with insane quite effortlessly; Lynch is able to wring suspense out of thin air it seems. Inland Empire is the most daring leap of faith Lynch has asked his cultish audience to take: the film is savagely disjointed, more so than any other offering in the maestro’s cannon. It is jam-packed with so many little tidbits of trademark Lynch-isms that after a certain point you will either just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow or you will hate it. A compelling argument could be made either way, honestly. It all depends on you, the viewer.


Beginning with a hooker and her john making a deal in an Eastern European hotel room, Inland Empire starts out vaguely disturbing almost immediately, and continues for a totally incomprehensible three hours of mind-boggling, awesome nonsense. It somehow weaves together Polish gypsies, a woman with a screwdriver protruding from her gut, and human-sized rabbits on some sort of terrifying sitcom. It’s easy to get lost in all of the bizarre-o details that sometimes don’t really add up to anything. For example, why is star Laura Dern in a hotel room watching a gaggle of whores doing a song and dance routine to “The Loco Motion”? The answer? Who cares? It’s perverse, stupid, and enthralling. You’re not going to see this at the multiplex next to the new Mel Gibson movie and you’re not going to see Reese Witherspoon puking up a torrential amount of blood in her next starring vehicle any time soon, I bet. Inland Empire doesn’t intend to reveal any promises or any explanations. It is a relentless, bleak, and uncompromising film that demands the rigorous participation of it’s viewer’s imagination.


While he might be “weird” according to most people, Lynch is the only American director who elevates the medium to this kind of art form: one that isn’t necessarily polished or beautiful (the film was shot entirely on digital video and each scene was written immediately before it was performed), and one that provokes extreme expressive reactions. He has created his own cinematic language and signature style that is unmistakable, and with Inland Empire Lynch raises the standards he helped to set. Comparisons to everything from Lynch’s own Lost Highway, to silent German cinema and classic ‘40s film noir are applicable here. True to form, Lynch returns to the struggle between good and evil forces, and their mysterious connections to his characters, only this time he manipulates the concepts of reality and identity in an aggressive, almost menacing way that he only began to touch on in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a movie which serves as a nice companion piece to the proceedings.


While Mulholland Drive is the sort of mystery that, while inexplicable in it’s own right (and also a damning exploration of theme of Hollywood as a brutal mistress), it can be at least partially explained with plausible theories or tidy little answers, Inland Empire doesn’t really afford it’s viewer that luxury: some things just don’t connect, and you will just have deal with it.


Characters appear and disappear without much notice (and are played by such luminaries as Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Mary Steenburgen, Justin Theroux, and William H. Macy). There are wild shifts in time and reality, which when you are flashing between ‘30’s Poland and the troubled emotional life of a character played by an actress in a film within a film, gets a little perplexing. There is an absurdly long sequence in which a rusty screwdriver is wielded by more than one character in a manic, murderous way. This lends an air of ominous unpredictability to the film that feels thrilling some times, exasperating others. Surely there is some sort of connection of these seemingly random events (in the mind of Lynch), but to enjoy this film, such mundane conventions must be abandoned.


What essentially glues Lynch’s jagged pieces together is Dern’s tremendous performance. In her third outing with Lynch over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1986 with Blue Velvet and their 1990 collaboration Wild at Heart), Dern’s Inland Empire work marks a turning point in her career as an actress: she is fearlessly committed to a performance that is like nothing else you will see this year. She begins the film as a sort of innocuous, prim actress named Nikki (who lives in a cold, luxurious home, and is trying to land a dream role), and ends up as someone else entirely: a character known as “Sue”, who at one point is covered in filth and blood, laying in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard screaming “I’m a whore, I’m a freak”.


When Nikki gets the part and throws herself into her character, Dern splits her dual identity into so many different personalities that it is impossible to categorize them all: is she a hooker or an actress? Who is real, the actress or the character? Soon she unable to answer that question for herself (“Look at me. Tell me if you recognize me from somewhere”, she says at one point). Co-Producer Dern is capable of navigating all of these wild shifts and nuances with such skill and depth that is impossible to think of any other actress of her generation being capable of doing such an experimental, gutsy part. This is a performance that has some outrageous demands: grotesquerie, murderous rage, romanticism, and humor are among a tiny fraction of the multitude of tasks Dern seems to breeze through in a complicated, ferociously well-thought out performance.


Dern matches Lynch measure for measure in artistry, each of them working at top form. Their collaboration here will no doubt be dismissed by a disappointing amount of people as being typical Lynch weirdness, but if it is an atypical parade of horrifying surrealism that you’re after, Inland Empire is the film for you. His images may be positively harrowing (just take, for one example, the gorgeous black and white shot of a needle skipping on a record player), and his motives may be unclear, but if you blindly trust David Lynch to take you on an emotional artistic journey, you will not be let down. This is the only film this year to be so unapologetic in its artiness and so confident in its lack of vanity, and coming from a heavy-hitter like Lynch, it packs a powerful punch. It is unquestionably a most refreshing, nasty little change from all of the boring coherence and relentless sparkle of the holiday film season’s current offerings.


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006

Decades before he invaded the Great White Way with his musical version of the comedic masterpiece, The Producers, Mel Brooks was known for pushing the boundaries of taste and tact in service of his scandalous, scatological comedies. While the aforementioned classic is missing from this set and a pair of less than successful films—Robin Hood: Men in Tights and The Twelve Chairs—are included, this is still a comprehensive look at the crazed comic genius who first flummoxed a less than prepared, slightly prudish populace. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, specifically, stand as benchmarks of expertly realized (and socially relevant) spoofs, while Silent Movie and History of the World, Part 1 proved that Brooks’ Borscht Belt bedlam could work in almost any cinematic genre.


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006

The New York Times Dessert Cookbook by Florence Fabricant [$29.95]

For the foodies in your life, here’s the full course meal.  Terri Pischoff Wuerthner, a 10th generation Cajun, offers up both a primer on Cajun cooking as well as a wealth of family stories alongside a treasure trove of classic Acadian favorites, including staples like jambalaya (several varieties) and etouffee and family specialties such as shrimp fricassee.  The best part of the book is the section on the basics of this delicious cuisine, including lessons on concocting a perfect roux and how to cook rice to best accompany these dishes.  Finish up with beignets or head over to The New York Times Dessert Cookbook to discover more than 400 recipes straight out of some of Manhattan’s best restaurant kitchens.  This volume covers dessert from A to Z, with some of the most indulgent inventions you can imagine.  If you can find the time to bake such delicacies as “lemon coconut cake served with raspberry coulis”, you’re likely to ascend to true foodie heaven.


 


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