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So long RSS, hello RSS!

08.13.19 Posted in Media, Technology by

It’s been a minute since Google Reader was the organizing factor of online media. Google killed the project to, as they explained at the time, clean up their application suite later admitting that they were trying to create their own universe of mico-targeted social media. That worked out real great for Google and the world.

Others jumped in without really fulfilling the need while social media overran everything. But nothing ever quite replaced that need for me, nothing gathered all my feeds into a single spot. Social media is far too diffuse, individual media outlets too centralized, so I’ve hobbled on iterating through Feedly, Byline, and others as a proxy for all my feeds. And then, this week I discovered RSS Mailer.

It performs the same functions as an RSS aggregator but it aggregates all the posts from your feeds into a daily email. So, here we are in the era where email newsletters are the back-to-the-future kings of media and you can get a daily digest of all your feeds first thing in the morning and stay on top of everything. There’s no irony in the fact that I found out about RSS Mailer through the excellent newsletter Dense Discovery. Apparently there are some times when you really can have it all.


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War dramas

08.07.19 Posted in Movies by

 

Rewatching Platoon and Casualties of War back-to-back is a contrast in cinematic style wrapping thematic continuities. They’re really quite disconcerting social mirrors that moralize without much self consciousness.

To get the purely technical elements out of the way first. Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War is clearly more in control and mannered. All those years of studying Hitchcock clearly bore fruit. I don’t know if Oliver Stone has it in himself to exercise that level of control, his eye is all kinetic, a smash and grab operation straight out of Roy Lichtenstein while DePalma is trapped and animated by a Renaissance formality.

Beyond that they present visions of Vietnam and our society that are so much of a piece with one another and today’s world that it’s striking and terrifying. They start out with the same scene and end up at the same place, young clean cut idealistic white boys arrive in Vietnam and have their world views shattered by the war. While those fresh faced white boys escape intact, the physically twisted faces of the guilty soldiers mirror their twisted souls, literally in Tom Berger’s case, all acting in Sean Penn’s.

Each features the era’s crops of young male actors, how’s this for a group shot of talent?

Platoon: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker.

Casualties of War: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Ving Rhames.

They even share Dale Dye as the type cast chisel faced senior officer who performed the same role in tons of movies and then turned that career around to act as military advisor in Entourage. Go figure.

To recap, in Platoon a young Charlie Sheen’s Chris is assigned to a unit where the opposing forces are Willem Dafoe’s soulful good guerrilla Sergeant Elias who bunks with a bunch of multiethnic stoners. He’s the good while Tom Berenger’s scarfaced Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes is the kill at any costs corrupt face of war. Barnes murders Elias and Chris later returns the compliment. In Casualties of War Michael J. Fox’s Eriksson is in Sean Penn’s Sgt. Tony Meserve’s unit – Penn leads his squad as they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman who is then raped and murdered by everyone except Fox. Fox leads a campaign which ultimately convicts everyone else in his unit.

The key to both is something of a false consciousness. They want to own up to guilt but they’re desperate to reframe the entire Vietnam War in terms of personal choices, to say that you can make the right moral choices within the maelstrom and come out damaged but whole. It’s all about our agency within the context of war. Charlie Sheen can kill evil, Fox can convict it. But never is there any reckoning with the greater responsibility: The politicians who got us into Vietnam somehow never come in for anything near the cinematic indictments that individual grunts get. It’s striking that so few films, books, or TV shows address the reason why all these poor soldiers are put into this pressure cooker. Politicians get raked over the coals in op eds, political journalism, and historical tomes but never in the popular media that most people consume. It’s no wonder that people get so caught up in all these false dichotomies about supporting or protesting troops.

I can’t summon a popular representation of politicians dealing with their responsibility for a war while the entire genre of war movies (and more expansively Westerns) is built on the idea of a grunt taking responsibility for their actions. It’s as if that level of understanding is just too complex for a writer or film maker to convey, too boring for an audience to enjoy. Sure – I get it – individual choices on the battlefield are inherently more dramatic and gripping but the insistence on only depicting that side of things only normalizes the gap between ultimate responsibility and this sense of personal control that dominates war movies. They never can get the randomness of destruction – individual soldiers really have very little control over any of it – nor the true agency in destruction – that politicians designed this war and continue to operate it.

And then there are all the other stereotypes like their inherent racism. Both movies feature African American characters straight out of central casting, each have a soulful experienced figure and younger characters who appear as examples of discrimination and, if this was even possible, reinforce that discrimination by virtue of playing those roles. It’s racial diversity as a tactic, presenting it as realism means that you get away with doing it. Of course there’s almost no sexism to speak of exactly because both these movies fail the Bechdel Test so spectacularly.

And then there’s the enemy. Each presents the Vietnamese as faceless masses that Just. Keeps. Coming. These are the equivalent of zombie movies except that the North Vietnamese get an occasional speaking role. Only once or twice do we see an enemy face to face, even then it’s something like “ready, aim, fire.” It’s a hallmark of war movies that the enemy is almost never humanized, but remarkable for movies like this that strive for conscientious engagement. Casualties of War has the gall of tyring to have it both ways by humanizing the Vietnamese woman at the center of it and then concludes with an Asian woman offering symbolic forgiveness to Fox back in San Francisco. Talk about one of strangest projections of power and psychology. We won even though we lost. We can be whole even though we destroyed ourselves and killed everyone else. We can accept forgiveness by imagining our enemy doing it.

I’m not solely calling out Stone and DePalma, the problems in Platoon and Casualties of War are endemic in this genre. The easy way out is to fall prey to these contradictions. Just look around: Saving Private Ryan is famous for its first 10-15 minutes because it depicts that random violence so perfectly. Then it moves back to the sense of agency and all the traps around it. Full Metal Jacket wanted to be completely anti-war and famously has become a shadow recruiting  for young men obsessed with it. The only war movie that I can recall that doesn’t fall prey is Overlord because it so patiently and consciously focuses on the hard way out. Even then, it’s a war movie. The politicians and, mostly, powerful men that created these wars never come in for the moralizing treatment let alone reckoning with the destruction that they’ve wrought.


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Hockney plays himself

08.06.19 Posted in Art, Movies by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

I recently saw A Bigger Splash in the theater. It’s a new 4k restoration hitting art house screens around the country that follows David Hockney and his circle in the 70’s. It’s a semi-fictional / semi-documentarian film about Hockney’s break up with a lover and England. It’s easily one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a long time – alternately engaging and excruciating but something that I never wanted to stop watching. The collective experience of watching this in a theater was never so important to keeping my but in the chair.

 

The essence is the experience of watching, the director Jack Hazan’s credo had to be “watch, don’t tell,” because there’s precious exposition – let alone much dialog – both are foreign concepts to this film. And that’s its beauty, it’s full of long takes, harrowed faces, one way conversations. It reconfigures all those things into the pleasure of looking.

The fact that it’s about a painter is part of the attraction and central to the experience because you get to see Hockney painting, especially A Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), but the majority is composed of scenes of his relationships with his lover, dealer, and friends. The secret is that everyone is playing themselves – Hockney, his lover, an art critic, a friend, they’re all there as their relationships crumble and they can’t bring themselves to see the truth – they want someone to tell them what they can already feel. And that’s the main metaphor here – “A Bigger Splash,” the painting, ties it altogether as it entices and distances you. It’s a composition that’s at once disconcerting and so attention grabbing. It feels like Hockney is telling us that ravishing beauty is its own thing, truth another. Looking back at many of his paintings, this sort of distinction between relationships and aesthetics jumps into focus.

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

There are lots of other attractions: It’s a window onto a wildly different era. The locations are instantly recognizable but the London, New York, South of France are all clearly different. The buildings and landscape may remain today, but the people in them feels so alien. The frank depictions of gay sex and culture of a must have been striking for the time. Even now it feels like such a stark contrast with mainstream moves – like an artifact from another time designed to remind us that you can make movies differently right down to showing nude men and gay sexuality.

Among the many lingering questions, was Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” inspired by this film? It feels like there are some clear references, maybe I’m digging too hard.


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A map to Armagnac distilleries

08.01.19 Posted in Spirits by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

In June we spent some time visiting Armagnac distilleries in the Southwest of France. The area is ravishingly beautiful – full of vineyards, bastides (the fortified villages built to defend against the marauding English), and a variety of culinary specialities that will leave you reeling. The pleasure of the area, technically the Gers / Tenareze, is that there aren’t any major tourist sites so there aren’t big buses with gaggles of people. There are plenty of great things to see and do but if you do see tourists they’ll most likely be like you, out there for a taste of the country and the great things that come from it.

I created a map of all the Armagnac distilleries that I know of so that you can quickly map trips on your phone. Make sure to contact the distilleries before making a special trip because, while many are open daily, some are so small that appointments are necessary. Keep in mind that these are working wineries so they may be busy. Many also produce Floc, wine, and some host restaurants. I’ve only visited a handful of them, I’ll be back to work through as many as possible in future visits.


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Today’s the big day

04.30.19 Posted in Food by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

It’s your last chance to indulge in Lucca’s (full name Lucca’s Ravioli Company) traditional Italian deli because they’re closing today at 6PM. I’ve paid my respects a few times since the announcement but it’s still a sad occasion because resources like this never come back. New shops mean new visions and that old time idea is just too highly curated by both economic and aesthetic imperatives to make a difference.

Six blocks down Valencia you can check out one of the new breed, Foodhall, which stocks many of the incredibly high quality and highly priced spirits, wines, coffees, and packaged foods that you’d expect to find in a freshly launched culinary boutique. And, yes, that certainly seems to be in demand. I’ve bought a few things there and have admired their mezcal selection, for a place that small, it’s ambitious but it also represents the complete antitheses to Lucca’s. Foodhall is serves the affluent with food trends.

As I’m constantly reminded, cities are living things and Lucca is a product of that organic transformation as well. Italians moved to the Mission after the Irish. Central Americans followed. Now it’s ground zero for gentrification. It’s actually pretty remarkable that so many of those things that made it such a vibrant and fun spot still exist.

And, it’s not like all is lost. The city continues to acquire culinary resources at a breakneck pace. My own little stretch of the city in Potrero has blossomed tremendously in just a few months. Last month a Japanese butcher opened on the traffic circle next door to a newly opened udon restaurant, both the products of local serial restauranteurs. If you order right, not the aged Wagyu beef but the pork shoulder, prices are completely reasonable and the quality is much higher than the major organic grocer in a tailspin since it’s recent purchase, aka Whole Foods up the street. Over in Dogpatch the best bagel I’ve had in years is about to appear on the shelves of Daily Driver. I could go on – I’d just like more balance to this whole urban transformation project.

 

 


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My how times change

04.29.19 Posted in Food by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

Things have been changing so much in SF lately that the old laments are just getting boring. Tomorrow Lucca’s closes. Jardiniere just closed. God knows how many other places have done the same in recent months. And then there are the changes within institutions.

This past week we dropped into Cotogna partially because they made their name on great food and a $40 a bottle list. Of course that had changed in the interim. Now it’s well curated but the wine prices match everyone else’s in the city.

The idea that their prices were really strong dates back at least eight years, here’s the most recent SF Chronicle article from 2011 discussing that well priced list, so it’s not yesterday but recent enough. That time period coincides with the epoch where everything has gone sideways. It’s all about what the market will bear and all the crazy costs we keep hearing about. Quince isn’t exactly a stranger to dramatic transformations, they did it before with their move from Pac Heights to North Beach and then by splitting Quince into the high end place it continues to be with a casual place next door named Cotogna. They continued just recently when they opened Verjus which is not shy about pricing. And, hey!, everyone else is doing it as well so it shouldn’t exactly be surprising but still, it’s another indicator of where we are.


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The languages of cooking

04.24.19 Posted in Food, Italy by

It’s spring so my garden plot is overflowing with leafy greens. The nettles are making it dangerous for anyone in shorts, the favas are bursting to the sky, and it’s been difficult to keep up with the arugula. And that’s just half of it.

Given the bounty I’ve been searching high and low for recipes but I’ve been hitting a wall: There are relatively few recipes for these sorts of spring greens on the English language Internet. It’s not a huge surprise, years ago Steve Upstill and I created RecipePower exactly for this reason, there’s tons of junk and – even better! – lots of duplicated junk that obscures all the high quality recipes out there. Sure, if you use really precise search terms you might be successful in discovering  creative and well crafted recipes. It’s just that the pool of recipes for an ingredient like nettles and many other ingredients is incredibly shallow.

I’m fortunate enough to speak Italian pretty fluently so I always search for recipes either directly through Google in Italian or head to one of the big Italian language recipe sites like Giallo Zafferano for guidance. And, boy, when it comes to do they have the type of inspiration and variety of recipes that I’ve been looking for. Just for nettles, ortica or ortiche in Italian, they have a really robust list of ideas that would be difficult or impossible to find on the English language Internet.

It’s a great example of what’s out there but culture is so embedded in language that even with all those translation tools, you have to think to look and use the language to get there. And that’s just one example, I just started poking around the French, German, and Spanish recipe sites which are islands unto themselves. I only wish I knew Greek and Serbo-Croatian so that I could start researching what’s available in those languages as well.


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A hint of positivity in the book world?

04.20.19 Posted in Books by

Recently I couldn’t find two books in local book stores because they had sold out and they couldn’t back order them through their warehouses. Of course Amazon had copies but in chats with the bookstores I got a funny picture of publishing today that makes me wonder if the industry is actually doing well. Ottolenghi’s Simple was the first book, obviously he’s been hugely successful so I would have thought that they’d print tons of copies. The second is Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ The Circuit, a blow by blow look at the 2017 men’s tennis season. Written by a poet, published by FSG, based on a topic that doesn’t exactly scream mass interest – here’s an example of something that I could understand being difficult to find.

When I asked book people about it they said the same thing. Publishers aren’t printing as many copies as they watch their bottom lines more closely. In Simple’s case that’s confounding exactly because it’s so successful and feels like one of those evergreen books that should always be on every shelf, maybe they’re really getting good at inventory management or maybe they’re just being penny wise. For the Circuit it makes complete sense because, apparently, it was a sleeper success. Either way, I hope this means that publishers are finally resolving the structural issues of the digital economy and getting back to working on great books because these two books have been really fun additions.


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Pastiche cinema

04.19.19 Posted in Movies by

I only managed to catch one movie at the San Francisco Film Festival this year and it was a doozy. Project Gutenberg sounded like a great way to dip back into Hong Kong cinema – all the crazy action and concepts that I used to spend hours watching at the Great Star Theater on Jackson in the 90’s. But this is no Infernal Affairs, it’s the definition of pastiche, you can count the movies that it borrows from as the plot unravels even if the wrap around concept comes courtesy of To Live and Die in LA. Where’s the line between homage and rip off?


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Dinosaur restaurants or nostalgia for those old time spreads

04.17.19 Posted in Food by

If you wander north of the Golden Gate through Western Marin and Sonoma you’ll run across the culinary remains of the immigrants who settled there from the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries. Dotting many of the small towns are classic Italian dining rooms that feature set ups, hearty pastas, and meats. Some have adapted to the times by adding kale salads and pizza but at heart they’re the equivalent of culinary holdovers from another era. And that’s a good thing, we need reminders of how it used to be that are also earnest restaurants.

And it’s not just the north bay, these restaurants still mark the spaces where immigrants roamed from Bakersfield, to western Nevada, and god knows where else. Make no mistake: The only reason these places are still around is family ownership. They’re hold overs because they haven’t been forced aside by economics or death which is why they mostly continue on in rural areas. The urban transformations long made it too expensive in those spaces. Take Negris which is the dominant building in tiny Occidental. The web site says that it was founded in 1943 but the last time I was in there the menu had a testament to the pair of Italian immigrants who founded it in the 1920’s.

The bar

A good chunk of the place is the bar which runs the depth of the building off to the left. Like many a road house this is the place for that mid-morning shot and a beer to make the day run smoothly or the business discussion that really needed to escape the confines of the office. These days the drinking side of things seems to occupy less space, the families and big groups out in the main dining room really make Negris hum.

That’s the way things used to go, you’d have a bar on one side of the house for the people who might be just passing through for a drink, waiting for a table, or who made a lifestyle of living in bars. Thankfully these places still exist and still have native populations of drinkers and socializers. And they’ve maintained much of their decor which usually includes the classic wood bar, mirrored back, dusty bottles of cordials which are now just decorations. If you need to know what’s going on in town, these are a medium unto themselves.

The set up

Once you’re seated in front of a red checked tablecloth and order you’ll meet the iconic set up, a set of plates that are part of every meal generally served family style for every table. This is usually a soup, salad, bread, and some cured meat. Occasionally, olives and other cured vegetables or cultural specialties make anyone feel like a king and sate the huge hungers of the manual workers that used to flock to these places. They were also the budget oriented dollar meals for everyone concerned because restaurants could treat them like prix fixes and have everything planned out ahead while diners got healthy and filling meals around common tables that encouraged a great social coming together. Consider it a type of class consciousness or family, both are true.

The meal

You’re here for filling food so be prepared for protein and carb heavy dishes that cover the bases, usually steaks and pastas, but specialties depend on cultural roots. The Italian places in west Sonoma and Marin are heavy on the tomato culture. Basque places love lamb because a lot of their workers herded sheep but they also have a good sideline in frog legs. And, since most of these places are doing their dance with the times, lighter seafoods and 80’s innovations like vodka penne make plenty of appearances.

The variations

I have no authoritative grasp on this genre of restaurant. I don’t even know what to call them other than my loose mental short hand of places with ‘set ups’ but they used to span our fair state. San Francisco’s dear departed Basque Hotel currently occupied by 15 Romolo just off Broadway in North Beach was a real down low sort of place which, per my father’s memories, used to be quite the scene. Thankfully 15 Romolo still preserves the ambiance but I’d love to have those shared tables back. The only living example in SF that I know of (tell me if I’m missing one!) is the Basque Cultural Center in South City. It’s quite a scene for families and trenchermen dinners.

While Occidental is fortunate to host two because the Union Hotel is just across the street from Negri’s, you don’t have to travel far for yet another just across the border in Valley Ford, Marin where Dinucci’s is still holding on. People have told me about places like this in western Nevada because of the Basque herding culture. And then there’s Bakersfield which boasts Benji’s and the Wool Growers as part of their Basque culture which has gone through the eye of the needle and established themselves as a certain sort of family friendly night out. Easy on the wallet, fun for all.

Back from the dead?

Bucca di Beppo was modeled on this idea but even they couldn’t thrive in the midst of a booming SF so my naive wonderings about why this sort of thing can’t continue to exist here are perhaps just that, completely naive. Still, I can’t help but think that in a world dominated by fast casual and comfort food that something like a Torrisi light wouldn’t be a huge hit. God knows I’d spend an inordinate amount of time there.