Friday, July 23, 2010

Climbing The Penrose Stairs

This past week I finally gave in to all the positive reviews, the flashy previews, and the endorsements from friends and family, and went to go see Christopher Nolan's new film Inception. Mostly I was afraid that the longer I waited to see it, the greater the chances would become that a friend would drop an unintentional spoiler and the whole thing would be ruined for me before I could even set foot in a theater.

I was not disappointed. One reviewer described Nolan's film as an elegant piece of origami, and I couldn't have said it better. I had trouble at times remembering where we were in the many layers of the film, but trust me, if you are as jaded as I am by formulaic plots, the challenge is most refreshing. I was also impressed by how skillfully the director was able to weave action, cerebral story writing, and human interest together. Basically just about anyone would be able to find something to like in this film, which much as I like inaccessible sleeper hits and cult films, I could definitely appreciate.

All of that aside though, what really grabbed my attention the most was the musical score. It is easily one of the film's strongest features and almost literally carries the viewer along through the story. (I have no musical education, which means I have a very limited vocabulary for describing it, so all you music aficionados out there, please have patience with my fumbling.) The more I listened to it the more the techniques that the composer was using began to sound familiar to me: repeating harsh, almost sawing strings overlaid with smoother soaring tones. The score has no climax, just a continuous build-up, promising eventual resolution but never delivering. This theme is carried out throughout the film, often played over dialogue, and sometimes during scenes where there is no corresponding dramatic action occuring.

The effect is that one is kept in a constant state of light tension, alert, and interested throughout the duration of the film. Even mundane events and situations seem to be imbued with significance. The mind is arrested, cannot help but try to tease out, to reach for a conclusion. It is an incredibly clever and effective method of using music to enhance a film's dramatic content, and I realized at once that this is not the first time that I have encountered it. Nolan's previous film The Dark Knight contains the same musical technique, which is not surprising since Hans Zimmerman composed the scores for both films, but Soderberg;s Solaris (music composed by Cliff Martinez) has it, as does Duncan Jones' Moon (music composed by Clint Mansell).

I have included a sample of the theme from each film below. Listen to them one by one and the similarities will fall into place.

Start by listening to the theme for Inception (dont worry, if you haven't seen the film yet, this wont ruin it for you)

Now The Dark Knight (this is the same composer-Hans Zimmerman)

Then for something slightly different, lets listen to Cliff Martinez's theme for Solaris. Quieter, less energetic, but a similar idea...

Lastly, we have Clint Mansell's piece from Moon....

As you can see the effect in each is of constantly ascending or progressing tones but with no real climax or resolution. Interestingly enough, there is actually a famous aural illusion called Shepherd's Ascending Tones in which the same two notes are played over and over but create the illusion that the tone is continually ascending in pitch ad infinitum.

I cant help but also be reminded of the Penrose Stairs - an optical illusion wherein a two-dimensional depiction of a staircase makes four 90 degree turns as it ascends or descends, and yet appears to be a continuous loop. In other words, a person walking on such impossible steps would climb forever and yet never get any higher. There is a reference in Inception to the Penrose Stairs which ties in nicely with both the central plot of the film and also the musical techniques that I have been describing, but I cannot say more for fear of spoiling the story for the uninitiated.

So whats my point with all of this? I'm not quite sure...except to say that a: next time you really feel carried away by a film, take a good hard listen to the music and find out who the composer is, for they deserve your thanks just as much as the director. And b: nothing interesting exists in a vacuum, every detail ties into a larger theme, a bigger picture and one of life's chief joys is finding out how those pieces fit together.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some Wolves Are Hairy On The Inside

Last Thursday I went for a short hike near Tiger Mountain with Jeff and his brother. It was early evening, most of the hikers and mountain bikers had departed, and the sun was just touching the tops of the trees, leaving most of the forest in shadow. At the trail-head, where tips about avoiding bears and hauling out garbage are usually pinned, there was a wanted poster.

On April 24th a female employee of the Department of Natural Resources was working alone on the trail and was approached by a white male in running attire. He engaged her in conversation, and when she turned her back for a moment, he shocked her with a taser and and pushed her to the ground. The woman was strong enough or lucky enough to fight off her attacker and was able to run back down the trail to the safety of her co-workers. The wanted poster warned us that the assailant had not been caught, that he was 40ish, average height, average build, and neat in appearance. In other words, he was no slavering maniac that could be registered as 'evil' on sight, he was completely ordinary and rather nondescript as most human predators seem to be.

Needless to say, after seeing the poster I couldn't quite manage to enjoy our hike. The shadows seemed too deep, the forest smell of moisture and decay was too ominous, too suggestive. It was as if I was viewing the negative of a color photograph, where all the tones are reversed and a scene of utter banality becomes mysterious, dangerous, and full of portent. I kept thinking about how far we were from help and how many others might have encountered beasts on that mountain and had not escaped, had not found help, had never themselves been found at all.

Even days afterwards I was troubled by this and I finally realized that the incident had so lodged in my mind because it was so terribly iconic. A young woman, alone in the forest, attacked by a monster who at first glance did not appear to be one. Its a story that we are all familiar with, that has been fed to us from infancy; the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood. A girl leaves the safety of the path and faces death in the form of a charismatic wolf. The metaphor appears obvious, an inexperienced female disobeys the rules that (male)society has set up to protect her, is tricked into trusting a creature that we, the far more knowledgeable readers, know to be evil, is devoured (one cannot help but see the sexual connotations here), and is then 'saved' (or not, depending on which version your grandmother told you) by a virtuous man. Its enough to put any feminist into a tizzy.

But read some of the older versions of the legend, or Angela Carter's wonderful modern retelling and the story transforms. Little Red Riding Hood is no fool, she left the path out of curiosity, not ignorance and she immediately suspects that the charming character she meets is but a facade. In the end the wolf is conquered or tamed and the girl loses her innocence, not her life.

I believe this story is so appealing to us because we have all experienced our own dark forests, whether they be in the mountains, in the city, or only in the depths of our minds. There are monsters there, but if we have the courage we can recognize them for what they are and avoid becoming their victims. The woman on Tiger Mountain was not swallowed by the beast, she escaped. She will never see the woods as a safe and familiar place again, but she will now enter them with awareness, as hopefully will I.

A wonderful take on the Legend where Little Red appears perfectly capable of facing her wolf.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Culinary History With a Sense of Humor

Ever wondered what it was like to live in a time period when water was unsafe and people of all ages drank ale with every meal? Or have you seen illustrations of the fabulous beasts laid to rest on medieval tables and wondered just what a cockatrice actually tasted like? These are the small personal details that all of us curious foodies want to know about, but somehow those dry historical tomes that painstakingly list who ate what and when always fail to satisfy. Fear not, BBC's television series The Supersizers is here to save the day. Inspired by the infamous American documentary Supersize Me, wherein filmaker Morgan Spurlock charted the disasterous results of eating nothing but McDonald's for 30 days, The Supersizers places Giles Coren (he's a restaurant critic) and Sue Perkins (she's a comedian and radio broadcaster) in a different historic time period each week wherein they must eat, dress, and live according to the style of the chosen era for a full seven days.

Each episode begins with a trip to a physician where Sue and Giles are given a full work-up and then advised on the possible health consequences of the diet they are about to adopt. For example, when Giles and Sue travel back to Elizabethan times they are warned that the copious amounts of sugar in 1500's cuisine will likely cause them to become hyperactive, while the correspondingly high levels of protein will make them lethargic. In other words, constant mood swings. (Hmmm, maybe thats why Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies...)
Likewise, they are both warned that their livers will experience some additional stress as they adapt to consuming only alcoholic drinks at meal times.

Afterwards the pair dress the part and take up residence in a period house. There they are attended by a contemporary chef who introduces them to the typical foodstuffs they will be consuming (all laid out in charming still life fashion on a table) and then attempts to recreate the exact recipes and dishes of the chosen time for each meal. You will be amused by the similar reactions between the different chefs when they have to boil an animal's head for the menu. Apparently the smell is indescribable.

At the end of the week Sue and Giles make a follow-up visit to a physician to see how they have fared. Usually their high sugar, high alcohol diets have taken their toll, but after spending a week in the 1970's they discovered that they had actually become marginally healthier. Who knew? I guess it was the aerobics that did it.

Supersizers will give you an informative crash course in food history (learning about a culture's diet allows the viewer an incredible glimpse into the overall mindset of the era), but it is also highly entertaining. The chemistry between Sue and Giles is priceless, with her deadpan delivery constantly playing off of his acerbic wit. So far I have only been able to find the episodes on youtube (where you must watch them in segments) but perhaps you will have more luck than me. Either way, the hassle is well worth it, but I warn you...this will dash all hopes that you might have had of adding accurate period appropriate meals to your next Renaissance reenactment. The real thing is simply too time consuming and too ghastly in most cases.

It's Hot!

I know, I know, I shouldn't complain; the East Coast is experiencing record temperatures and brown-outs are rampant. I have single poignant image in my head of my friend Emily holed up in the chill cave of her bedroom (the only room that has an AC unit), trying to get her baby daughter to sleep through the worst of the heat. So my heart goes out to you East Coasters, we at least have our constant breeze off the water here. But oh, I had become so used to moist vagaries of Seattle spring weather...the mountains engaged in their usual disappearing act behind clouds, the misting rain, the cool nights when an open window was all that was needed .

Now the air turns tepid at dawn and is stifling by noon. A water glass set down on the counter immediately begins to sweat. The body is overcome by torpor and seems to thicken, while the heart shrinks and wants nothing more that to retreat salamander-like under a cool damp stone. Where are all my clear thoughts, my goals, my aspirations? All wilted and sluggish, all melted and overcome. Im reminded of a Shel Silverstein poem that I read as a child. I always found the last stanza to be sinister and yet accurate.

It's hot!

I've tried with 'lectric fans,
and pools and ice cream cones.
I think I'll take my skin off
and sit around in my bones.

It's still hot!

That right there is the difference between the dog days of summer and the freezing nights of winter (though both are equally uncomfortable). When you are cold you can easily put on more clothing, but when you are hot you can only take off so much before you are left with no recourse. It gives you a nasty feeling of futility. And trying to see the bright side, as I always do, I think to myself, maybe that is the lesson in it. There are many things in life that the human will cannot overcome, that sometimes we must put our heads down and give in to inertia, maybe even enjoy (on some level at least) the idea that for once, nothing can possibly be expected of us, and that we have nothing that needs accomplishing. We must simply sit idle, and indulge in a sort of bizarro hibernation.

In closing, here is a recipe for a cool and refreshing sandwich that will at least get you through the afternoon. It is reminiscent of a British tea sandwich, but sized more towards lunch proportions.

Asparagus and Prosciutto Sandwich

1 small bunch fresh asparagus
2 tbs good thick sour cream (Im crazy about Nancy's Cultured Sour Cream) or creme fraiche
1 green onion or several chives, finely chopped
2 slices of bread (homemade preferred of course)
1/2 a lemon
2 slices of prosciutto

Trim and peel the asparagus and cook for 4-6 minutes in a pan of boiling salted water. Immediately plunge into an ice water bath and set aside

Spread one slice of bread with the sour cream or creme fraiche and sprinkle withe the chopped green onions or chives.

Arrange the asparagus spears on the bread and squeeze a bit of lemon juice over them.

Drape 1-2 slices of prosciutto over all, top with the second slice of bread, and voila!