Saturday, August 29, 2009

#20 Semi-Homemade Marinara a la Mosteller

As Monty Python was wont to say, "And now for something completely different." Here's a red-sauce recipe that I've been asked to share with the Myriad Readers. The basic un-homemade thing about it is the jar of store-bought spaghetti sauce, unless you count the sine-qua-non ingredient: ANCHOVIES. Difficult to go out and catch for yourself these days.

Nothing can beat the field-fresh tomato, of course, as the true base for what Italian homies call "red gravy." But I gave up some time ago, and capitulated to the super-market jar of marinara, especially after my gardening days were past. A so-called vine-ripened tomato from Food-Lion? ... fugetaboutit. It's even risky to rely on a local "farmer's-market" product, unless it looks a little scruffy, and has a tell-tale ring of yellow around the stem. A giveaway-sign of being homegrown. Hard to find though, and--even if you're lucky--it still takes some skill in preparation and a lot of time on the stove to cook/reduce fresh tomatoes to the proper consistency for a good red sauce. That peeve out of the way:

  • 1 jar high-quality marinara sauce like 4Brothers Tomato-Basil
  • 1 3-oz tin anchovy fillets in olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped white onion
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 12 Kalamata (or assorted) olives, halved
  • 1 tsp dried Italian herbs
  • 1 tsp dried parsley
  • Extra-virgin olive oil to cover

Directions: Reserve store-bought marinara. Put all other ingredients in 8-in sauce pan (don't drain anchovies) . COVER with olive oil. Bring to a boil. Turn heat way down. Simmer for 6-1o minutes, using fork to make sure anchovies are crushed and assimilated. Add to over-the-counter red stuff. Stir. Repeat. Serve over pasta of choice.

Remember: this just ain't gonna work without the anchovies. They give the sauce its rich earthy flavor and body that can't be duplicated otherwise. If you've got some deluded, hardcore--"eeeewww"--anchovy-phobes at the table (maybe even yourself), don't tell them, and nobody will know the difference. Enjoy their compliments, and the apres diner pleasure of the following:

--That was really good. What's your secret?
--Do you like anchovies?
--You just ate some.

Bonus tip: an inch or two of anchovy paste from the tube and whisked into your Vinaigrette will make a salad incandescent. But don't tell.

Monday, August 24, 2009

#19 Hughes,Candy, Death IV--Threnody

Because many on the paternal side of my family have the unfortunate habit of dying of a broken heart, literally, I once asked a doctor-friend--no, the other kind: a physician--"What's the primary symptom of heart disease?" My closest friend for over 50 years and best-man at my first wedding answered, "Sudden death." Ha ha, I thought. Joke between friends. Not. That's the earliest warning sign, ironically, for one-out-of-three of those half-million a year (USA) who die of some form of cardio-pathology. Among celebrity examples, we can remember the shock and disbelief over John Ritter's untimely death a few years ago, and, more recently, Michael Jackson's. It's been 15 years since John Candy's fatal attack--"un-symptomatic" till the end--unexpected but totally understood, given his personal habits and family history. As for John Hughes, hale and fit by all accounts, it happened on a quiet Manhattan morning walking his dog.

Candy and Hughes were good-hearted people too, though I suppose that's too silly an irony. But their movies, as I hoped to make clear already, always had the human heart at the center of things. Along with family, as Hughes got older. Never mean-spirited. That's why their work has been so enormously popular, if not critically acclaimed, from the very good to the not-so-good at all. The latter seemed to happen to them, coincidentally, when CANDY played the lead in a movie without the Hughes connection--Who's Harry Crumb? (same year as Uncle Buck) and too many others--and when HUGHES went on an assembly-line-sequel binge--the Home Alone and "Lampoon Vacation" pluralities--without the Candy connection, at least in a supporting role. To over-simplify a bit. But no question that when properly teamed up, they could make movie magic.

Another reason I'm drawn the Hughes films, and seen most all of them (except those dreadful sequels), is his choice of locale. It connects with my late-teenage years. Despite my Southern roots, I spent a lot of my pre-college days ranging about those same Western and Northwestern suburbs of "Chicagoland"--Lombard up to Lake Forest and into the city itself--that Hughes uses as a backdrop for the majority of his movies. Ferris Bueller's epic landscape was very familiar to me, as were his antics. Ah, nostalgia.

And then there's the odd configuration of morbid numerology that struck me at the announcement of John Hughes' death at age 59. My father was 59 when his first heart-attack hit. He survived, but another one took him out less than two years later. Some fifteen years before Hughes, John Candy died suddenly at age 43. At the time, and being great fans, my family and I couldn't help but notice that he died at the same young age as another one of our bad-gene, infarction-prone, paternal-side relatives. He was my father's brother, Dwight ... my favorite Uncle.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

#18 Hughes, Candy, Death III--"Uncle Buck"

Pity that Martin-Candy never teamed-up again after Planes, but John Hughes knew that John Candy alone could carry a film, as he did--with great support, however, from such as the little guy at right before his Home Alone juggernaut got cranked up--with Uncle Buck (1989). Candy was to play only one more notable lead-role, and do it well, in Only the Lonely, mentioned earlier.

Writer-director Hughes borrowed a lot from his characterization of Del Griffith in the earlier movie, and here makes Buck Russell The Compleat Slacker for the ages. Del was at least minimally employed as an itinerant shower-ring (!) salesman. The unemployed Buck Russell hangs out at bowling alleys trolling for tips on the latest "fix-is-in" horse-race (he doesn't actually cheat--that's important for Hughes, I think--he just plays the cheaters). We are to believe that his shoo-in bets pay the rent on his shabby apartment and his shabbier life-style.

Uncle Buck Griffith is also borderline INSANE. Candy's trademark laugh can thus carry overtones of real menace here, which comes in handy when "parenting" his brother's kids for a week. Here's the hook: it turns out that his character has a strong sense of "family values" in spite of all this. One clue Hughes plants early on is actress Amy Madigan. Loyal, loving, level-headed owner of a tire-store, her character has been trying to wed/hire and legitimately spawn with the ne'er-do-well Buck without success for the past eight years! There's gotta be some good in him.

And he proves it when he is called upon in an emergency--all other candidates having been exhausted--to nanny a sullen/surly teenage niece who hates him at first sight, and her bright/cute single-digit brother and sister who fall in love with him immediately. These two are not your typical movie brats. They are among the best written and acted that I've ever seen. The little-girl-actress speaks the language of six-year-old cuddly-love to perfection, and Macaulay Culkin is great as the eight-year-old-who-never-stops-asking-questions. Here's the finale' of about 50 lines of Q & A:

--Are your my Dad's brother?
--What's your record for consecutive questions asked?
--I'm your Dad's brother all right.
--You have much more hair in your nose than my Dad.
--How nice of you to notice.
--I'm a kid. That's my job.

How right-on-key is that bit of Hughesian dialogue? "Thirty-eight" is just terrific ... and then the punchline. Another exchange involving the hormone-driven, fifteen-year-old niece and her predatory boyfriend provides us with Buck's secret child-control strategy:

--Are you crazy?
--I can be.
--You could have taken his head off!
--Yeah, but would he notice?

This impinges on the central plot-line of the movie. Whereas Planes was basically episodic, this film has a pretty-well-defined story-arc, an old-fashioned one at that: saving this young girl's virtue. Uncle Buck loves these kids, even the wayward niece, Tia, and somehow finds in his slacker-self an iron core of responsibility to keep them safe and on schedule, even if he has to get "crazy" to do it. (Can you think of anyone but Candy to play this role?) "I have my orders," he says to Tia after she refuses to be picked up from school (she'll get a ride from "friends"). Well, this is how he'll enforce those orders: "Stand me up today, and tomorrow I'll drive you to school in my robe and pajamas and WALK you to your first class ... four o'clock okay?" She doesn't stand him up.

It matters to us, though, that these threats remain just that. We can't really allow Uncle Buck to use his hatchet that "can circumcise a gnat" on "Bug" the boyfriend. Unbeknownst to Buck, his prophetic words alone, matched with Bug's subsequent behavior, are what saves the maiden in distress before the fact. Here was his brand of "moral suasion" before she sneaks out to, and abruptly out of, what was meant to become a "bed-and-breakfast" party:

--The guy's a predator and you're his prey.
--And how would you know?
--When I was his age I was zooming girls like you. Pretty face, good chip on your shoulder.
--I recommend you stay out of my personal life.
--Do your parents stay out of your personal life?
--They don't know of my personal life.
--Have they met twiddle-dink?
--His name is Bug.
--First or last?

The words stick, and she sees through the real Bug just in time to avoid infestation. But Buck doesn't know that, and so he careers his flatulent Mercury across town to the party-site as soon as he sees that Tia is unaccounted for. This allows Hughes to give us some Candy-style craziness after all. He arrives at the party armed with a huge power-drill and his maniacal laugh ... bedroom keyhole demolished (you see this through Bug's terrified POV) ... mis-identifies new girl under the covers ... picks up authentic Tia on road walking home ... Bug hog-tied in trunk ... released humiliated. Great fun.

Happy ending. But as much or more for Candy's character than it is for the niece and her family. There's more bildungsroman here than in any other of Hughes' efforts. Along with his wards, who are already getting along better at the end, Buck grows up. He's ready now for Amy Madigan and kids and a steady job installing tires to support them. He's proved his true worth as a family guy. We know it's a Hughes film, and we've come to expect a happy ending. But when first-time viewed, and our disbelief properly suspended, the movie is not that predictable. Neither is Planes. Unlike his earlier strictly teen-fare, these two offerings give us some urgent, life-altering situations that could end up very badly indeed.

I've spent so much time on Uncle Buck because I feel I'm writing somewhat "uphill." Critics loved Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but HATED Uncle Buck ... almost unanimously (some just didn't like it). A bad rap. There are some flaws: the horny widow next door, for example. She's important for a plot-turn, but her extravagant sexual displays seem to come from some other planet entirely, and come off more disgusting than funny. Hughes blinked on that one. The movie overall though--casting, story-arc, dialogue--represents some of his finest work, in my opinion. And a fine legacy for John Candy, too, at his comic best. (more)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

#17 Hughes, Candy, Death II--"Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"

Before Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, John Hughes was King of Teen-Screen Comedy. He's at right, barely post-teen himself, but this photo, among very few since his Salinger-like seclusion before his death, is fairly "official"--Wikipediawise--as if he wanted to preserve a lost iconic era. Starting with Sixteen Candles (1984), he auteur-ed (and was writer-only on several others not so good) The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Teen-agers suffering terminal teen-angst abound in these films--worked through in well-staged productions, coherent structure, and fairly realistic dialogue (even in the enjoyable Weird Science, where the hormonal angst is purged through pure fantasy and Kelly Le Brock).

These are one-time, thoroughly watchable movies, but they barely go beyond stereotype in both plot and character--the jock, the geek, the rich kid, etc.--or predictability. You'd have to be a teenager to give them a second viewing. Not in the same class as, for instance, Cameron Crowe's teen-oriented movies, roughly contemporaneous, like the seminal Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), from which I think Hughes borrowed a bit, and the magical John Cusack vehicle, Say Anything (1989). Deeper, and therefore more fully comic. Crowe's teenagers actually strive to grow up, struggle to deal with some very adult issues, and to take responsibility or not for their success or failure. Hughes' characters simply come to terms with their teen stereotypes, or not. Good fun, though.

With Planes Hughes had himself a truly adult comedy. There's plenty of Ferris Bueller in John Candy's free-wheeling salesman Del Griffith, and a whole lot of stereotypical geek in Steve Martin's fastidious adman Neal Page. A connection to Hughes' earlier work. These perfectly-cast characters are grown-ups all right, but they have to grow out of some of their self-destructive, almost adolescent "hang-ups" to become more fully-realized adults. And in the the end they take what they need from each other to do just that. Thrown together by chance, then necessity, they find themselves in an "Odd Couple" road-trip kind of story. Pretty simple, really--thus, profound. Through the power of friendship they grow together and become greater than the sum of their parts.

Meanwhile, we're treated to enjoyable doses of slapstick--"Fat man fall on face ... funny"--of comedic misdirection and discomfiture, as they endure their ill-starred odyssey across the Midwest in various, somehow-always-unreliable modes of transportation. It's an on-the-road, "buddy-picture" in this way--complete with raucous car-chase and crash--with roots all the way back to Cervantes and anywhere up to the movie it most reminds me of: the estimable Midnight Run (1988), co-starring Grodin and DeNiro in a similar love-hate partnership. Like them, Candy and Martin become friends in spite of themselves.

That's because underneath it all they're both good-hearted guys. However, Candy is "too eager to please" (his late wife had told him), giving way too much of himself to make friends, so that he really can't. Especially not with someone as rigidly punctilious and outwardly self-reliant as Martin--always "under-eager" to give anything of himself. That's his problem. But by the end of their tribulations, betwixt the two of them they have rubbed off those rough edges and reached a happy compromise. It's very important to this unfolding theme that Martin learn of the death of Candy's wife only AFTER he decides to return to the train station and invite Candy to his home for Thanksgiving ... literally and figuratively. Martin must unconditionally give; Candy, unashamedly take. (more)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

#16 John Hughes, John Candy, and Sudden Death

John Candy could look funny even when scowling. Such was his natural-born talent, under-utilized by Hollywood, alas, even up his heart-attack at only 43 while filming the unwatchable Wagons East (1994). He had the classically-round, clown-face, prominent nose and lips, and of course he was always pudgy, going on morbidly obese. Chris Farley, who had a similar but even shorter trajectory, once summed it up: "Fat man fall on face ... funny." But Candy could also rely on his always protracted, truly inimitable, near-maniacal, mountain-peak-sized laughter--oh, that laugh, like nobody else's, ever--and, paradoxically, could call on a somewhat darker side of his comic persona to pull in his audience completely. The name didn't hurt, either.

John Hughes died of a heart-attack a couple of weeks ago at 59, but after all of those wildly successful "teen-films" of the early- and mid-80s, he had been sort of out of commission as a prominent auteur about as long as Candy's posthumous career. His last writer/director effort, in fact, was Uncle Buck (1989), which, along with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) comprise his best work, in my opinion. With credit due to Steve Martin in the latter, these two films featured John Candy doing his very best work. Third on my list would be writer-only Hughes' Home Alone (1990--none of the sequels), buoyed up, yes, by John Candy's cameo spot as Polka King of the Midwest, a reprise of an earlier character on the breakthrough and still-watchable SCTV series.

The Hughes/Candy collaborations outshone anything else they ever did. Candy consistently stole the spotlight in supporting or cameo roles, from Splash to Blues Brothers to the quirky Southern lawyer in JFK. But his starring efforts were maddeningly compromised by bad scripts and low production values, with the exception of Only the Lonely (1991), which was produced by none other than John Hughes, but written and directed by frequent collaborator Chris Columbus. Not a great film--none mentioned here would come near the top 100, frankly--but the interactions of the three lead actors speaking some pretty good lines make the film. Candy is in his sweet-shy-but-maybe-manic mode as a lonely Chicago cop of Irish extraction; out-of-retirement Maureen O'Hara is the bigoted, overbearing, first-generation-extractor mother; Allie Sheedy reprises her neurotic Breakfast Club role (Hughes again), but in an adult, Italian-ancestry, would-be-fiancee' guise. "She's a Guinea; please don't tell me she's Sicilian, too?"--asks/demands O'Hara. "Yes Ma, she is"--Candy proudly responds, signaling her son's first baby-steps toward independence.

Candy's sweet/crazy persona--that raucous laugh could erupt anytime--is perfect for the perpetual loser matched with Steve Martin's up-tight "winner" in Hughes's Planes. It marks a new departure for all three: Hughes would get off his teen-angst-movie hobblety-horse and make a truly adult film; Candy would finally be offered a lead worthy of his talents; and Steve Martin would move from the strictly-for-laughs roles--never straying too far from The Jerk--of past movies. But my goodness, did he not do them well?--1984's All of Me will always be my favorite. He went on, though, soon after Planes, to portray more fully-rounded comic characters in such films as Parenthood and L.A. Story, and to take them into much darker territory than before, like those in My Blue Heaven and Leap of Faith (1992)--the latter my second-favorite Steve Martin movie, still underrated, where he turns in the best acting job of his life. (more)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

#15 Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll II--the Stone-d Age

Sorry, no "hard"evidence of drug use among the cave-people since last post, but I couldn't resist. However, the Cro-Magnon artisan who sculpted the little statue at right just had to have been "on" some potent substance or another for him to create such wonderful grotesquery out of the living rock (fossilized mammoth ivory, actually).

(Historical note: it's a widely held belief among crypto-paleo-anthropologists, of which I am one, that the first psychotropic drug was, in fact, a rock. Many of these of various sizes have indeed been discovered in and around prehistoric cave-dwellings. A carefully-directed blow to one's temple with such a "stone"--hence our modern term--would produce surreal images and spectacular light-shows of a truly psychedelic nature ... for the short term. Overdose seems to have been a problem, however. Some skulls have been uncovered where blunt-force trauma indicates just such an unfortunate accident. The "high" achieved would of course be accompanied by a rush of sheer physical pleasure and overall well-being, once the head-pain had ceased. Some contend--though I don't believe there's quite enough evidence--that this is the origin of the phrase "rock 'n' roll." The self-administrator takes his "hit" with the "rock"--a smooth one, preferably [perhaps from a creek-bed or nearby glacial deposit], in order to avoid unsightly blood-letting--and "rolls" upon the ground in unconscious ecstasy.)

Whether on drugs or not, the carver had no doubt that his little lady would bestow the proper kind of "high" on its owner. An "upper," if you will. For she is the "Venus of Hohle Fels," discovered only a yardstick away from that magic flute of my earlier post. She's the oldest of these figurines, dating from c. 35-40,000 years ago, but they all look the same. Wildly exaggerated vulva, breasts, belly, and hips--a stylized vision of fornication and fecundity, if not the goddess thereof. All of this I find unbelievably modern, in its own way.

It can't stand alone--deliberately no feet--and in place of the head you'll notice a carefully carved ring. IT WAS PORTABLE. Pendant-wise. Our male ancestor could not only celebrate a night in the home grotto with her and her real-life counterparts--accompanied by music, dance, and firelit cave-etchings--but also take her hanging around his neck to the office next morning. An ancient version of laptop porn. Le plus ca change ...

By way of ironic illustration, please marvel at the incredible naivete' of Cambridge archaeologist Paul Mellars, who comments on the figurine (May 2009 Discovery)--

It's at least as old as the world's oldest cave art ... can't avoid being struck by its very sexually explicit depiction of a woman. The breasts really jump out at you. I assume it was a guy who carved it, perhaps representing his girlfriend ... We just don't know how it was used at this point, but the object's size means that it fit well in someone's hand.

The only real question is: left or right?