Sunday, February 14, 2016

Snobbery: Bad for Business

While making coffee with my new French Press today, I remembered a time maybe eight or nine years ago when I was just really getting into beer, which had a domino effect of me getting into other foodie stuff like some foods, tea and coffee. Since local coffee shops are all over the place, I would often pop my head into a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon to try something I've never had before and see if I liked it. This is the way you learn about things.

One day in what must have been 2007 or 2008, or maybe later, who cares, I went to a coffee shop and I looked at their chalkboard menu. There was nobody in the coffee shop and one barista behind the counter. I was a coffee newb, and still drank it with a lot of cream and sugar, before I started going black. (They were right, I never went back.)

I knew a few things about coffee back then: Espresso is spelled with an "S" and not an "X"; French roasts were generally a bit darker than Colombian; and Caffe Americano is basically half coffee, half water, since Americans during the War were such pansies about coffee that they couldn't handle the strength. (It's basically an anti-American joke, and I am nothing if not a LOYAL AMERICAN, so no, I won't order that.)

I wanted something strong, so I saw what was called "French Press," which at the time I didn't know wasn't a type of coffee, but rather a brewing method. I thought that was a little odd, since the other menu items were types of beans, and this one was the way they brew it. But whatever, no biggie, it was on my list, so I was going to try it.

So I stepped up the counter -- and I get nervous at coffee counters since I don't really know what I'm talking about -- and I asked if I could get a French Press coffee. The barista sort of sized me up, and asked me "Do you know what that is?" and immediately put me on the defensive. It seemed like she was trying to talk me out of it.

What I didn't know then was that French Press coffee, while delightful through and through, is a pain in the ass to make. There are a few steps and you have to wait for water to do its thing and then you have to clean all the different parts. It's not easy. It's worth it, but it's not easy.

But this barista, whose job, I might add, is to make me coffee in exchange for money, clearly did not want to make this French Press for me. Not only was it going to be a pain in the ass for her, but I was so clearly out of my depth that I wouldn't have appreciated it anyway. She made me feel very small and very dumb. And instead I ordered a mochaccino or hazelnut or something I've had a hundred times. While I can't say this experience soured me on trying new coffee types, it made me reticent to try new things off a menu because I can feel the baristas judging me.

But for some reason, today, while I was cleaning out my French Press, I thought to myself, what the hell difference does it make whether I know what a French Press is or not? It's on the menu, you know how to make it, what the hell business is it of your whether I have a familiarity with the brewing process? That's what I pay you for.

What I should have said was "NO, I don't know what a French Press is, but you can go ahead and get me one." I'm not one of these The Customer Is Always Right people because customers are usually assholes. But I wasn't being an asshole, I was ordering from the menu. If I was a bartender at a good beer bar, and someone ordered something weird, I wouldn't be like "Do you even know what that is?" I might say, "You're aware that's very sour, right?" or "Have you had it before, would you like a sample?" But I wouldn't talk them out of it because maybe it's difficult to pour.

If I go to one of those frozen yogurt or gelato places where they have like 50 flavors, I don't run into this. If I've never had pistachio, and I want to know what pistachio tastes like, I will say to the person behind the counter, "Hi, I'll try the pistachio." The person wouldn't sniff at me and say "Do you even know if you like pistachio? Why don't you try this nice vanilla, it's nice and safe for you, ya n00b."

I used to work at a video store, and people would rent the worst crap on earth. If they asked me if I had seen something and if I would recommend it, I would give my honest opinion. But if someone came up to the counter with "Chasing Amy," I wouldn't tell them "Are you sure you want to rent this? You know we have like a thousand good movies, right? Let me get you a Andrei Tarkovsky movie instead."

The barista could have used this opportunity to take 30 seconds to educate me about what the French Press was, what its advantages are (such as no filtering out of its essential oils, its biggest advantage), and told me that it would take about 5-7 minutes to make, to at least give me an out and allowing me to save face. (I could have said something like, "Oh I'm in a hurry, so in that case I'll just take a regular old cup of joe!") But instead, she was either lazy or condescending or a combination of both, and now I just drink beer before work instead.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Academy Award Corrections: On the Sixes

So now that we are in 2016, and Oscar time is nigh, it's a good idea to check out how well the Academy Awards do with hindsight as our friend. We have already talked about the Fives and the Fours, so today we're going to talk about the Sixes, which is only appropriate, since that gives us a solid nine years of perspective at minimum.

I'm actually going to skip over 1966 this for the moment because I realized that I've only seen like four movies from that year, and don't really remember the ones that I have seen. One of these days I may breeze through all of them so I could get a good sense of what was good that year. For the record, here were the nominees that year:

1966 ACADEMY AWARDS (39th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • A Man for All Seasons (Dir. Fred Zinneman)
  • Alfie (Dir. Lewis Gilbert)
  • The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (Dir. Norman Jewison)
  • The Sand Pebbles (Dir. Robert Wise)
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Dir. Mike Nichols)
I've seen Virginia Woolf and the first half hour of The Russians are Coming. I'm going to get cultured soon.

Let's skip to our nation's bicentennial, 1976, a great year for American cinema and the year that your humble narrator was brought forth into this world.

1976 ACADEMY AWARDS (49th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • Rocky (Dir. John G. Avildsen) (WINNER)
  • All the President's Men (Dir. Alan J. Pakula)
  • Bound for Glory (Dir. Hal Ashby)
  • Network (Dir. Sidney Lumet)
  • Taxi Driver (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Three of these movies are among the greatest of the 1970s, if not of all time, all for completely different reasons: Network is an absolutely spot-on satire of the insanity/inanity of broadcast television that probably seemed over the top in 1976, but is positively tame by comparison forty years later. Taxi Driver is considered by some to be the best movie of the 1970s; it captures the paranoia, loneliness and disillusionment of the post-Vietnam era. And All the President's Men is a ripped-from-the-headlines procedural about the Watergate scandal, just two years after it actually happened! It's a cathartic, cleansing film that gives Americans permission to feel okay about hating politicians.

Rocky? Well Rocky is a feel-good movie, at least toward the end, but there is a hell of a lot of slow, grimy Filth-adelphia business that has a lot of great scenes between Stallone and Burgess Meredith, and a lot of rousing boxing scenes at the end. I'm guessing that voters and audiences were still on a rah-rah high by the time voting came around, because of the nominees here, Rocky holds up the least.

I've never seen Bound for Glory, but considering nobody ever talks about it anymore, I can assume maybe it would have been the odd man out.

Movies that could have been considered:
  • Carrie (Dir. Brian De Palma)
  • Marathon Man (Dir. John Schlesinger)
  • The Seven Per Cent Solution (Dir. Herbert Ross)
  • Seven Beauties (Dir. Lina Wertmuller)
Carrie isn't really Oscar bait, when all is said and done: it's a genre/exploitation pic that happens to still hold up years later, trading on the same isolation/disillusionment wish-fulfillment/fantasy that Taxi Driver does. But let's face it, it's still a Brian De Palma movie. Seven Beauties was kind of a darling back then, but boy does it not hold up; it feels like a new-wave film from ten years prior.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • All the President's Men (WINNER)
  • Marathon Man
  • Network 
  • Rocky 
  • Taxi Driver
This one surprises even me! I am a devout Scorsese fanboy, and I am a huge admirer of Network, but in terms of pure filmmaking, I think All the President's Men is both the most enjoyable and the one that holds up the best decades later. Every journalism procedural that has come after it owes it a debt: it takes a complex, weighty story (one that could have been incredibly dry and boring) and makes it tense, compelling and suspenseful. I do think it's a shame that they didn't have any idea how to end it, because that teletype in the final minute is the only flaw in an otherwise near-perfect film.

1986 ACADEMY AWARDS (59th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • Platoon (Dir. Oliver Stone) (WINNER)
  • Children of a Lesser God (Dir. Randa Haines)
  • Hannah and Her Sisters (Dir. Woody Allen)
  • The Mission (Dir. Roland Joffe)
  • A Room With a View (Dir. James Ivory)
Platoon is still very effective thirty years after the fact, even though it's as subtle as a brick to the face. Children of a Lesser God is a really beautiful little story about the kinds of barriers that prevent people from connecting. I haven't seen The Mission, and A Room With a View bored the living shit out of me.

Movies that could have been considered:
  • Blue Velvet (Dir. David Lynch)
  • Hoosiers (Dir. David Anspaugh)
  • The Color of Money (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (Dir. Claude Berri)
Blue Velvet was a full decade ahead of its time in terms of its nightmarish narrative and shock value. The Jean de Florette/Manon double feature is one of the best double-feature morality plays of the 1980s, and even thought it's a simple story, it sure as shit packs a punch. The Color of Money isn't one of Marty's best, but it did win Paul Newman the Oscar; and it's a hell of a lot of fun. Hoosiers may be the greatest sports movie ever made.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • Hannah and Her Sisters (WINNER)
  • Blue Velvet
  • Children of a Lesser God
  • Hoosiers
  • Platoon
I rewatched Hannah recently, and although it feels very dated, it holds up as a singular work of a visionary writer-director. It hits all the Oscar beats: a "serious" movie with a lot of humor; an actor who also directs and stars in his own work; a love triangle; a redemption story; and an exploration of the ennui of the affluent. I think that Hoosiers may be the most purely pleasurable movie for me on this list, but it's less Oscar-y than these other four nominees.

1996 ACADEMY AWARDS (69th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • The English Patient (Dir. Anthony Minghella) (WINNER)
  • Fargo (Dir. Joel Coen)
  • Jerry Maguire (Dr. Cameron Crowe)
  • Secrets and Lies (Dir. Mike Leigh)
  • Shine (Dir. Scott Hicks)
This was another one of those "strong years," and it was right in middle of the apex of the merging of the indie cinema and studio sensibilities, where directors were making personal but commercially-successful movies that were also critically acclaimed. 

The English Patient is classic Oscar bait, and it kind of gets a lot of shit for it, not entirely unjustifiably so. Although it's a solid movie, it hits all the beats that Oscar loves: a love triangle, a period film, foreign lands, flashbacks, people with deformities or disabilities (which this year had plenty of, especially in the Best Actor category). I don't know a single person who thinks The English Patient was the best movie of 1996, nor did I know many people who thought it was in 1996.

I'm actually surprised to see Shine and Secrets and Lies in this list, as I had forgotten they were nominated. Secrets and Lies is one of those great little English indie films, with a great script and great performances; it's a difficult watch at times, but very rewarding. If you know Mike Leigh's oeuvre, this is among the best. Shine is not, in my opinion, a "great" film, but it has one of the great all-time performances by Geoffrey Rush as eccentric (to say the least) pianist David Helfgott. Jerry Maguire belongs nowhere near a Best Picture list.

Movies that could have been considered:
  • Breaking the Waves (Dir. Lars von Trier)
  • Sling Blade (Dir. Billy Bob Thornton)
  • The Birdcage (Dir. Mike Nichols)
  • Sleepers (Dir. Barry Levinson)
  • Lone Star (Dir. John Sayles)
If you had bet me $1,000 that Sling Blade wasn't originally nominated, you would have taken a cool grand from me. I totally thought it was a Best Pic nominee. It's one of the five strongest films of the year, easily. The Birdcage got no love because it's a comedy, but it's one of the most well-written movies of that year, and one of the funniest movies of the 1990s, period. It was one of the best theater-going experiences I've ever had.

Sleepers and Lone Star might be kind of a stretch, but the former addresses weighty issues of child sexual abuse and juvenile crime, and the latter is an expertly-crafted mystery that has a killer twist that makes it look totally different on a second viewing.

Breaking the Waves is one of the most beautiful movies of that era, and it would have been nice if Lars von Trier had continued down that path instead of trying to become Gaspar Noe lite. He's never made a better film and may never again.

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • Fargo (WINNER)
  • The Birdcage
  • Breaking the Waves
  • Secrets and Lies
  • Sling Blade
Twenty years later, people still point to this Academy Awards ceremony as one of the biggest travesties. Fargo is not only the best movie of 1996, it's one of the twenty best movies of the last quarter-century. It has everything: script, performance, direction, cinematography, text, subtext, mystery, suspense, humor, violence, character study. It's nearly perfect. But this is the kind of thing that the Oscars fuck up all the time: they pick a More Important movie instead of the best goddamn movie of the year. The 1996 Oscars are pretty much the reason I started this little exercise in the first place.

2006 ACADEMY AWARDS (79th Annual)
The Actual Nominees:
  • The Departed (Dir. Martin Scorsese) (WINNER)
  • Babel (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima (Dir. Clint Eastwood)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (Dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
  • The Queen (Dir. Stephen Frears)
Movies that could have been considered:
  • Borat (Dir. Larry Charles)
  • Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
  • Dreamgirls (Dir. Bill Condon)
  • The Fountain (Dir. Darren Aronofsky)
  • Friends with Money (Dir. Nicole Holofcener)
  • Little Children (Dir. Todd Field)
  • The Lives of Others (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
  • Pan's Labyrinth (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)
  • The Prestige (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
  • United 93 (Dir. Paul Greengrass)
  • The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Dir. Ken Loach)
The year 2006 had such an embarrassment of great movies that it's unbelievable that they landed on the nominees that they did. Letters from Iwo Jima? Come on. Little Miss Sunshine? It's cute enough, but give me a break. Babel? BABEL? That movie is a steaming pile of shit. It's amazing that of the Mexican Triad, Iñárritu's pretentious blather got a nod over two of the most relevatory movies of the year in Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men.

There were so many damn good films in 2006; the ones listed above don't even count the really, really solid ones that came out. Ten years after the Fargo/English Patient debacle, Oscar voters were still making truly questionable choices of nominees. But they still got one thing right....

The 20/20 Hindsight Nominees:
  • The Departed (Dir. Martin Scorsese) (WINNER)
  • Borat (Dir. Larry Charles)
  • Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
  • The Lives of Others (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
  • United 93 (Dir. Paul Greengrass)
Finally, Marty Scorsese gets his rightful statues for Best Picture and Best Director; the fact that he previously got robbed by Robert Redford in '80 and by Kevin Costner in '90 make this win for The Departed -- which I still think is the best movie of 2006, and one of the five best films of the decade -- that much more satisfying and justified. 

I think that Borat and Children of Men have only grown in stature over the last decade, so much so that it's hard to believe they are turning ten this year. Borat is a snapshot of America in the middle of the Bush years, and it will serve as a cultural artifact for decades to come. Children of Men is the perfect combination of dystopian nightmare and race against the clock. United 93 ... well it's impossible that the first great 9/11 movie got snubbed just five years after the event.

I can't wait to do more of these later. It makes me remember how much I love all these films, and makes me want to get cracking on the ones I've missed. It also makes me realize that although The Revenant will likely sweep through the Oscars this year, that doesn't mean we won't re-evaluate it ten years down the road and conclude that Sicario is a much better and much more worthy film.