Cornstarch

Let me state my disdain for cornstarch. Such a statement can only be yuppie, but I will clothe it as a matter of taste.

There have been two memorable times I've used cornstarch in the past couple months. The first began with reading Muriel Spark's Cirriculum Vitae. I found myself at first intrigued then obsessed with a tangental description of a dessert wee Muriel had had with her mother at a Christmas party. Actually it wasn't really a description--just "some kind of orange mousse, served prettily in half-orange skins". This could only be the playing out of a fad for food in shells of fruit, something which brings irrational terror to my restrictive post-1960s sensibilities. Being a mousse, it was probably made with gelatin, again a capital crime. But for whatever reason the idea of orange-flavored, um, pudding (let's stay away from the word mousse), appealed strongly. I talked about making it for ages. I hadn't really worked out how. As usual, I'd just wing it. Pretty much the only way I get my jollies cooking anyway.

On Christmas I decided to make to bring to dinner at a friend's house. The timing and setting completed my fantasy. As for the actual method, I decided to go with a "pure" approach that in my mind had the advantage of enriching the orange color of the orange: it would be thickened with egg yolks. Perfect. A pudding made of orange juice, orange zest, sugar, a bit of cinnamon, and egg yolks. All I needed to do was mix it all together,and heat it slowly while whisking in paranoia. In my mind this would create something like lemon curd, but orange. It didn't. It was sweet, dully flavored orange soup. Well, okay, I thought, I won't use gelatin, but I will use cornstarch. Like Lemon-meringue pie. I mixed in more and more until it seemed almost as thick as I wanted it. It had to stay inside half an orange without spilling, after all. Everything was ready, and though I wasn't entirely pleased with the result, at least it would be presentable. Then the goop cooled. The starch became a white crust on top. Below that it had turned to a dusty texture. Apparently I had mixed in so much starch that it could not all be dissolved in water, and had precipitated in protest. Rather than going to the dinner with me, it went into the garbage. There was no use pretending it was something it wasn't--namely, edible.

(Actually, it didn't go immediately into the trash. I didn't serve it to anybody, but I left the dozen filled orange halves sitting on the counter for several days, waiting for myself to decide they were alright.)

More recently I actually made what I was modelling the orange goop on: lemon-meringue pie. My father had brought home a sizable box of Meyer lemons, and this was the best thing I could think of to do with them. It wasn't quite lemon-meringue pie. My brother is allergic to wheat, so the crust was out. I didn't want to bother making wheat-free crust, and the lazy oats-butter-sugar crust I sometimes make for pumpkin pie seemed like a disgusting pairing for lemon. So it would simply be lemon-meringue: lemon filling below meringue. My brother and I have done this many times before, usually with tangelos instead of lemons. It turned out well. Except that faint flavor and texture. It was aggravatingly hardly noticable, but unmistakable. Cornstarch. It was the thing that one didn't want to taste with lemon. It broke the fantasy of confectionary abstraction. One does not want to taste the construction of one's dessert any more than one wants to see a trash heap in the middle of the city or watch a bird's neck chopped every time one takes a bite of chicken. Food, especially dessert, is not about transparency.

I hate cornstarch.

30 January 2012

The Appetite of Sarah Lund

Lately I've been watching "The Killing" ("Forbrydelsen"). Once you start it is difficult to stop. Sometimes, you forget to eat--not unlike its detective protagonist, Sarah Lund. She survives on whatever is at hand, unless it is offered by someone she does not want to show weakness to. When she returns, usually late at night, to her mother's house where she lives, she rummages like a teenager for whatever. Having largely starved herself most of the day, this is her ad-hoc feast. She does not intentionally starve herself; she gorges herself on the sustenance of the investigation and forgets that anyone, much less herself, has other needs. But it is not the investigative nature of her work which feeds her, per se. Her son tells her peevishly "you only care about dead people," but that's not quite it. My projections lead me to believe simply that investigating the case is certain to give her something back--something cold, like most things she wolfs down in a hurry, but abundant.

Both her and her unwanted partner, Jan Meyer, live on an edge of anxious attachment to their work. Every lead leads to another, and each promises to crack the case. Thus the investigation can never be let alone, and they can never quite rest. They must keep prodding it. At one point it is their boss pushing them, but a new boss then pushes them to be patient and keep things quiet. It becomes clear that it is not outside pressure that makes them, especially Lund, unable to stop. The case will be fine, but if she stops, she loses hold. The lid of her life would fling open. On the one hand the investigation drives her toward destruction, on the other hand it is a holding pattern. The latter is how her plain obsession is pleasurable in a "Rear Window" way: she puts herself on ice and watches the world around her aflame. She is subject; everyone else is object. Paradoxically, this makes her just as vulnerable as everyone under her detective's gaze.

This all-consuming purpose is not so much fed as kept going by a constant stream of coffee poured from vacuum-carafes into small white cups (not quite demitasses and not quite mugs), and in her partner's case, cigarettes. This is not coffee taken to jar oneself awake, but to further engorge already electrified (yet exhausted) neurons. It is drunk to make easier ongoing activity, not as a promise of activity to come. Her partner, being more ill at ease with all this, smokes. It doesn't help with the anxiety, clearly, but it gives him something to reach for. When Lund is kicked off the case, there is a turning point: She smokes one of his cigarettes. Soon she smokes another, and casually hands the half-smoked cigarette to him. Notably, they are standing behind glass side by side, looking out.

The two detectives' eating habits markedly differ. He is abject through his food; his agitation spills out with the cheese crisps, chips, and bananas he desperately gnashes. These snacks, like his cigarettes, leave a great deal of refuse: crumbs, peels, ashes. Lund does not share this habit. In fact, it annoys her. Once he calls her, and the whole time he speaks he is crunching cheese crisps noisily. "Stop it with the cheese crisps for a minute!" she snaps. He does not. When she hangs up he's tilting the dregs of the bag into his mouth. Lund, by contrast, is a creature of control. She eats, as I said, when it is convenient, and when it does not mess up her persona. What she eats is never messy, but that is not to say she eats well-manneredly. Sometimes she doesn't have to, because she eats alone. One time it's a pot of unidentified brown glop that she eats directly from the pot with a spoon, in front of her computer. Early in the show she comes home and serves herself a plate of what looks to be leftover mashed potatoes and gravy. She is clearly hungry, yet she eats it disinterestedly. It is merely something to go into her gullet, offering no psychological comfort, only calories. She looks up at her mother, which is rare, and, conciliatory, says "this is good."

What does she survive on besides her mother's leftovers snatched at odd hours? Bread and butter in the office. Her and Meyer slather untoasted slices of bread with butter, and munch them hungrily while irritably carrying on a discussion about the case, and drinking coffee. As I'm sure some of you figured, I find this appealing. This is the kind of breakfast (whenever it happens to be taken) that does not sully its consumer with the baseness of food. You can eat it without admitting that you need. You surf along like this, not acknowledging the wave moving to crash over you.

19 January 2012

The Iron Lady

A friend of mine was excited to see "The Iron Lady" because she admires Margaret Thatcher. My friend does not so much admire her policies, but rather the way she made her way in a government of men. My friend points out that people are usually unable to separate her politics from her sex. In all of this movie's cold pity, it also fails to do anything but reify an unexamined impression. Here her political decisions are not decisions, but the collateral damage of a psyche that demanded of its bearer to, as my brother says of Hilary Clinton, have a bigger penis than the men. (His view of Clinton as a woman so obsessed with one-upping male politicians that she ends up more monstrous is this script's view of Thatcher.)

The movie's crude psychoanalysis of Margaret starts early. Giggled at by girls her age (literally there is a scene in which they walk by her father's shop, glancing over at her and giggling as if we're in Constance and Margaret has just received a damning blast), teenaged Margaret becomes entrenched. After all, although nobody else does, her father loves her more for her ungirlish ambition. When she is accepted to Oxford, her father warmly congratulates her. Her mother, washing the dishes, says that her hands are still wet. She doesn't bother to dry them, turns back to the dishes, and the script has suddenly explained Margaret's life. Before Margaret agrees to become Thatcher she sums up her need to not become a housewife by telling her future husband "I do not want to die washing a teacup." (She does not, but there is one drawn out scene of her washing a teacup as a widow, during which I half expected her to keel over from the force of the movie's need for poetic resonance.)

Throughout the movie the lack of her mother's love is reiterated. She is shown hating every other woman who walks on screen. She ignores her daughter and swoons over her son. "I always have preferred the company of men."

The most egregious scene is in a meeting of the cabinet. She explodes at the president for a typo in the agenda. The men silently gape at her raving. The scene keeps cutting away to shots of her looking malevolently at the ceiling. Someone in the audience asked "is this real?" (The alternative being that it's in her head, like her dead husband.) Wrenching her body, she finally wails "you're all so weak! So weak." The body language of her outburst is about as subtle as a silent film. I would not have been surprised had she begun skulking around the government halls like an animal, hunched over, fingers clawed.

When she sends Britain off to get back the Falkland Islands, she has ceased being depicted as a person, and we are now only allowed to see madness. Why does she decide to go into the Falklands when, as the President (played by Anthony Head) tells her, the country can't afford it? Penis-envy gone wild, obviously. Cynicism about people's motives in politics is usually a gas, but this is lazy. The movie may as well have been titled "The Crazy Bitch". The effort to show her humanity has deprived her of it.

If I'm to watch an unyielding woman hell-bent on securing power at whatever cost, how about one who is judged insane by the other characters, not by the screenwriter. In other words, give me Patty Hewes in "Damages," not some old bullshit of a case-study served up as Margaret Thatcher.

16 January 2012

Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy

I went into "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy" with a humorless mood. This was embarrassing because it was sure to share my grim view. On my way out the door, my brother read me this quip from a review: "it’s a movie of chain smokers and whisperers, of grey skies and glum expressions, of rattling tea cups and rotary-dialed telephones," which once inside the theater gave me an uncomfortable sense of being in colusion with the movie. I was glum; it was glum. In an absurd flight of self-consciousness I imagined others rolling their eyes at me for taking this terribly serious movie so seriously.

It's so serious that even a little relief had the audience in stitches. Smiley, the retired spy who is investigating his former peers (because he has hero fantasies or because he's power hungry, take your pick) goes to talk to a woman who no longer works at The Circus, as they call the intelligence agency. It is implied that they were once romantically involved. They sit down to tea, and have a view into the kitchen where youths make out on the counter and then go upstairs. She says "I don't know about you George, but I'm feeling seriously under-fucked!"

George is not to be seen doing anything dirty, so that when we see him at the top of the Circus at the end of the movie, it's supposed to be like a coronation of the righteous king. The film dryly observes just as its spies do, so that this final  cut feels as if it, too, is under scrutiny. But there's nothing behind this habitual scrutiny. The spies in this movie analyze but are not insightful, are observant but not thoughtful. One could read the camera the same way.

To give everything away, when the villain is slain, it is Colin Firth. He's shot through cleanly the cheek. The gore in this film is gratuitious, but not in the campy way. It's not fireworks in slimy red for us to marvel at, but quick and terrible. This must be a singular moment in his career, getting shot.

Rising stars, on the other hand, get another sort of glamor. I'm convinced that Benedict Cumberbach's agent insists that he wear fabulous clothes ever since the success of "Sherlock" and its resulting coat and scarf sales. As Peter he's the peacock in the Circus, strutting about in his bright blue tie and handkerchief, doing Smiley's bidding. Who, in contrast, insists upon a protective shell of drab.

There's a kind of defensive criticism in which one faults the movie for the parts one didn't understand in it. Did you understand all the dialogue in this movie? Honestly I didn't understand what was going on half the time. The music swelled menacingly and I thought "um, what are you driving at?" It's a good device to put the audience in the position of an imperfect observer, doling us out little facts as the story unfolds in both directions. But sometimes it seemed as if we were expected to have already read Le Carre's book.

Personally, I found the only fun reading of this movie was as a psychodrama of purification. The corrupt Circus, who gives information to its professed enemy, is the mess of the psyche's attachments. Smiley, somehow standing outside of this is here to perform a superegoical audit. In the end the Circus is reconnected with itself, restored as, well, an agency. Its will will once again be carried out without turning against itself. In parallel to this is the purification of Smiley's marriage. Anne, who we never see, is a contested posession between Smiley and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). "It was nothing personal, I hope you understand," Haydon tells Smiley, "I knew that if you saw me as Anne's lover, you couldn't see me straight on. It worked, up to a point." Apparently Smiley is the perfect spy, able to overcome the compromises that emotions allegedly wreak on objectivity. In the end he and his wife are reunited. Through a doorway we see him gently touching her shoulder. Order is restored; the scapegoat for the two mirroring plotlines is one person, and he is punished. Hooray.

10 January 2012

Young Adult

What I should not do is review this movie. (Or any movie, really, but that’s another matter.)

This town is small enough that one of the audience came to the same coffee shop afterwards. “it’s not about a young adult writer,” she was saying emphatically to the barista, who was I suppose curious or pretending to be for the sake of small talk. It is about a young adult writer, but I was caught in the same identification that she was. “It’s not just high school” she said, eyes widening in confidence, “people--young people--really do get stuck like that, and they’re not psychotic.” Neither is Theron, despite the absurd character, Mavis, she is supposed to be playing. She knows better, but she does it all anyway: chases after her high school sweetheart, keeps but only loves her fluffy, purse-sized dog as much as she loves him, and drinks coca-cola every morning. It's supposed to be darkly funny, deadpan, but is instead depressingly real to people like me, and, apparently, someone else.

I imagined a crisis of imagination leading to this script. The author (”author,” Mavis always corrects anyone who calls her a “writer”) can’t write, as her protagonist cannot in the beginning. Fed up, the author decides to not filter anything, to do the authorial “fuck it” that her protagonist does with life. She sends Mavis off to do the least imaginitive thing possible, for her: get her high school boyfriend back. This is the author’s bare imaginitive act, while the rest is filled in with unhappy vignettes of mundanity: sending the dog out to feed from a plastic container that she never cleans up from the balcony (the camera shows us a pile), not connecting with but cynically sleeping with her date anyway, playing the same tired song on her mix tape over and over as she drives to her home town (which is tiresomely metaphoric). What was startling to me was the misery of interstate travel through small towns. Shot after shot of off-ramp chain eateries, mostly empty parking lots. This sort of imaginationlessness that Ashland, with its relative wealth, has relegated to the edges of town.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” I told her, “but then I don’t hate Ashland as much as she does Mercury.” Ashland sucks less than Mercury. It’s more bearable, and complicates the upward mobility narrative blackly played out in this movie. Even the terribly cruel and self-loathing probably wouldn’t say that only nothings live here, as one tragic and ignored character does to our blonde heroine. What I said to the other moviegoer was that there seem to be two endings: the conventional ending in which everything is wrapped up in the last ten minutes: She decides, somewhat bewilderingly, to move on with her life. She gets into her broken car, eyes sunken with makeup meant to amplify a lack of makeup, but changed for the better. What this neat ending doesn't deal with is what I called the other ending, but it's not really an ending: After sleeping with the self-described "fat geek," she comes upstairs in her wine-stained getup and sits at the kitchen table with his sister, who idolizes her. The sister gives her a pep talk that consists of Mavis being better than everyone in Mercury. She, after all, went to the city, and writes things. Everyone who lives in Mercury is meant to, because they are nothing. She eats this up, smiling, and is convinced to go back to Minneapolis. "Take me with you," the sister pleads. "You're good here, Sandra, you're good," Mavis says, and leaves.

It figures that I would think that it’s too bad that the “having a life” option in this movie is marriage. The lifeless are single; the living are married with children.

It was not the sort of movie during which you have to keep from peeing your pants because you laugh so hard. But then, thankfully, it was also not the sort of movie in which characters regularly pee their pants to make you laugh. The most it ever roused the audience to was a sharp chuckle. More often I breathed out loudly through my nose in that barely laugh that's like a whisper. We all began laughing because, I guess, we expected a comedy to be funny. At some point we stopped straining.

2 January 2012