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Thursday, March 15, 2007

American Toxic: The Host (Gwoemul)

We saw the promo for The Host quite a while back. Shortly thereafter, we heard that there's an American version in the works by Roy Lee who seems to have taken up remaking Asian horror films as a profitable hobby. I politely pass over any judgments on the artistic merit.

I'll come out and admit that I have yet to see much of the appeal of these movies in either form: The Ring was a not-particularly-interesting-or-scary English-language horror movie based on a not-particularly-interesting-and-only-slightly-scarier Japanese original. I have a feeling that I've actually seen The Grudge (American) at some point, and I remember nothing of it. This is not gratuitous slamming of the Asian horror phenomenon on my part, it's merely meant to demonstrate that I don't have any innate prejudice against the American remakes or bias in favor of the Asian originals.

And yet, I literally cannot imagine The Host as an American movie. It's too weird. Its stars are too offbeat. Its pacing is is too eclectic. Its story line is too earnest. And it is overall just too grounded in the history of and contemporary conditions in South Korea. That last is really the stake through the heart of any American remake, because it results in a film that is anti-American. Worse still, it is, for the most part, anti-American in a matter-of-fact way, almost entirely devoid of vehemence. Throughout, I couldn't help being haunted by how an American version would completely bone every single scene.

The movie opens with a scene that would feel at home enough to put its scaly feet up on the coffee table in any given Godzilla movie, comfortable enough to bum a fiver off Spectreman, and tight enough with Johnny Socko to borrow his giant robot without asking.

In a morgue on a US Military base in South Korea, a dour old doctor (DoD) has a dust issue (when he really should be having a where-the-frilly-heck-did-actual-formaldehyde-come-from issue [please note: the Korean assistant actually balks when he still thinks it's formalyn and the DoD corrects him, so that shit is literally Old School]) and demands that his Korean assistant dump a bunch of chemicals down the sink. The assistant notes that they'll flow directly into the Han River, in egregious contravention of the rules, but the DoD orders him to be broadminded as the Han is broad.

That might seem to contradict my assessment that the movie is not particularly pointed or vehement in its anti-American sentiment. It's a scene that borders on the goofy, and casting the American as the villain seems almost too easy—the only thing missing is his moustache. So it seems like Joon-ho Bong has chosen an implausible springboard for a movie that will be all about those big bad Americans and their environmentally degrading, capitalistic pig ways. Except that it really happened and, in the end, it's just an incident that segues into some Blinky-the-three-eyed fish foreshadowing and a suicide.

It's only in the third scene that our focal family begins to assemble. Gang-Du (or Kang-doo, as he is later transliterated) is the possibly narcoleptic, possibly developmentally disabled, definitely unfortunately bleached son who hinders, more than helps, his father (Hie-bong) run their small food stand. In addition to not being much of a son or business partner, it appears that Gang-Du is not much of a father to the 13-year-old Hyun-seo. In an American movie, he'd be the loser foil for his successful brother and sister, but Koreans are not bound by such pathetically simple conventions: Gang-Du's brother Nam-il is a college graduate, but is out of work both on the gainful employment and former activist fronts; his sister Nam-Joo is an olympic calibre archer who remains an also-ran because she always chokes at the last second and runs over time.

On the surface, the families problems seem like a compendium of Truly Tragic Bourgeois tales: Gang-Du eats up the stand's profits and alienates the customers; Nam-Joo only comes home with the bronze; Hyun-seo is the only kid whose unemployed, probably alcoholic, uncle looks like a step up from her father, and she's burdened with a cell phone so crappy she's embarrassed to use it in public. But each member has little tragedies wrapped up inside what makes them comic, and that makes them a little more Cops than they are The Brady Bunch.

That Cops vibe starts with the relationship between Hyun-seo and Gang-Du. To me, at least, it was not evident immediately that they were father and daughter (one could blame this on inadequate subtitling or inadequate attention on my part and probably not be wrong): Gang-Du is literally chasing after her, stumbling down the river front to ask her about parent-teacher day. He's eager for her approval, but has no idea how to engage with her and his attempts to do so (offering her a beer, because "she's in middle school now" and showing her his stash of coins pilfered from the stand to buy her a better cell phone) are pathetic and not a little touching. And all this is set against the backdrop of Gang-Du's relationship with Hie-bong, whose life seems entirely wrapped up in doing damage control for his damaged son and still keeping the family business afloat.

On the day that the real story begins, Hie-bong, Hyun-seo, and Gang-Du are huddled in the stand's trailer watching Nam-Joo's bid for a gold medal. In a show of impatience with Gang-Du that one gets the sense is relatively rare, Hie-bong sends his son out to bring some customers an appeasement squid. Gang-Du makes an effort, but the customers in question, along with everyone else, are standing at the edge of the river, looking at the slimy bulk that seems to be hanging from the bottom of the bridge. All and sundry continue standing there as it flips into the water and swims nearer the edge. Gang-Du is the first to demonstrate the superiority of our species by throwing a can of beer at it, but he is soon joined by the entire crowd and soon the water is full of convenience foods and nonbiodegradeable crap.

Blinky is unimpressed by these offerings and decides (possibly based on the accidental man-snack he got as the result of an earlier bridge jumper) that nothing but man-flesh will do for him. He bursts out of the water and gets his rampage on. The ensuing scene is standard-issue chaos complicated by narcissism and stupidity. The only two people who make any attempt to rein in the monster or help others are an off-duty American solider (I think . . . ) and Gang-Du. Working together, they manage to break a trailer full of school kids out one end while Blinky is stuck in the other. They then work together to heave heavy things at Blinky, and the American gets eaten (maybe) for his trouble, while Gang-Du gets a face full of Blinky Blood when he makes with the stabby stabby.

Gang-Du realizes at some point that running away is the better part of valor and he heads into the fleeing crowd. He spots Hyun-seo and grabs her hand. For a while, they are making good progress under the "I-don't-have-to-run-faster-than-Blinky-etc." principle, but Hyun-seo is bound by powerful laws of the Universe to twist her ankle and fall. Gang-Du reaches back blindly and finds a hand attached to a school-blouse-clad arm. Unfortunately, he realizes too late that neither hand nor arm nor blouse belongs to Hyun-seo, who has just been snatched up in a tentacle.

Blinky swims for the far side of the river, very politely not drowning Hyun-seo as he does so. Gang-Du watches helplessly as Blinky vomits up a number of the people he's just eaten, then runs off.

When we next see the family, they, like everyone else, have been herded away from the river front and into the kind of panicked-person-containment units that all societies keep on hand for just such emergencies. It is unclear how much time has passed, but the refugees have had time to erect a shrine to the lost comprising neatly arrayed fraed photographs and sprays of white flowers. Hie-bong and Gang-Du are already beside themselves. When they are joined by Nam-il and Nam-Joo, the accusations fly, the grief
flows, and eventually the entire family ends up in a sobbing, writhing, flailing mass on the floor as the media snap pictures.

For all the refugees, but especially for the Parks, things are about to get worse. A Korean man in a hazmat suit enters, which is never good. Even less good is when he tries to calm the masses by telling them that the media will fill them in on the situation. When hazmat!man cannot find a live news program, he's forced to tell the crowd the bad news directly: Blinky himself is the least of their problems. It turns out that he is the host for a deadly virus that is, even now, causing the brave American solider (whom I thought had been eaten, but this may be a different, off-screen American) who fought him to be ravaged with some nonspecific, but terrible, I assure you, health problems.

Failing to see the writing on the wall, which clearly prophesies a round-up of the innocent and some good old martial-law-declaring scientists, Gang-Du admits that he got sprayed with some Blinky Ichor. The Parks' new identity as The Infected Family doesn't seem to have much of an effect on them at first because all the life went out of them along with Hyun-seo. But when Gang-Du gets a static-y call from her on his cell, they limp, stumble, and pratfall into action when it becomes clear that everyone views them as having slightly less credibility than a brain-damaged flatworm.

Hie-bong calls in favors and expends his modest fortune to secure their escape (which Nam-il notes is inept) and a decontamination truck (that Nam-il notes is second rate) that will allow them to move throughout the city with comparative freedom. Armed with flimsy disguises and a sewer map (which Nam-il finds to be of dubious value), they begin their long search for Hyun-seo.

As we follow our family down endless corridors of poo gas (and, you know, it's a funny thing: Nobody likes poo gas), we brush past another story in progress: Two street urchins, a youngster and his barely pubescent brother, are successfully flying below radar as they make their way through the evacuated area around the river. They arrive at the food stand just before the Parks seek safe haven there, and they stock up on food. When the younger boy gleefully uncovers a stash of cash, his older brother admonishes him for stealing. Taking food, he explains, is invoking seo-ri, which is a right of "the hungry." (I note that the affronted Patriot-Act-Loving review here translates seo-ri as "scavenging," but it certainly seemed to me more like a recognized right to draw on the social buffer created by generalized reciprocity, but I know exactly squat about Korean culture, so I'm talking out of my ass; however, the vibe in the movie was not nearly as negative as the term "scavenging" implies.)

When we rejoin the family at the freshly looted stand, they settle easily into their prescribed roles. Gang-Du nods off, Nam-il insults him and berates Hie-bong for his indulgent attitude, and Nam-Joo turns inward. As they eat in silence punctuated only by sniping, Hyun-seo appears behind Gang-Du's shoulder, and he calmly feeds her a bit of his meal. In turn, each notes her presence casually and with just as little ado, each feeds her from his or her plate. It's a moment that is surreal enough to draw a surprised laugh (especially as there's something about the way she moves into frame that is a nod to the dangerous television creature of Ringu), but it also so matter-of-factly demonstrates that she's the heart of the family—the thing that calls them together and moves them forward, the only thing that motivates an immediate cessation of all hostilities—that it's kind of sweet. I can also see it done as a fiercely weepy nightmare in an American movie.

This, thankfully, is not an American movie, right down to the pacing. Had this been an American movie, we would have moved right from this touching scene to somebody being eaten or nearly eaten. After all, we've just had two character-driven scenes in a row, it's time to make with the monsters, right? Instead, we get another tragi-comic family scene. While Gang-Du nods off, Hie-bong explains to his two younger children that Gang-Du, as the oldest, got the fuzzy end of the parenting lollipop: Hie-bong wasn't much of a father early on, boozing and disappearing for days on end and leaving Gang-Du to fend for himself. Never having enough food when he needed it, Hie-bong explains, is probably what makes Gang-Du fail to tick. Naturally, this ends with Nam-il and Nam-Joo sound asleep and Gang-Du listening intently, but the comedy is just there. It's not punched or underscored in any way.

After the brief respite in the store, the Parks have their second Blinky encounter. It does not go well. As a small handful of hazmat-suited soldiers threaten to (very slowly) close in on them, Blinky scampers on to the banks of the Han and proves regrettably impervious to both guns and arrows. Hie-bong is not yet ready to abandon his quest for vengeance, and he takes the gun from Gang-Du on the premise that it contains their final bullet. As Hie-bong turns to take his last stand, the gun's hammer comes down on an empty chamber. And you saw it coming from a mile away, but your stomach still drops, then finds a lower place as Hie-bong's head is slammed into the concrete embankment. There's no final words, there's no rage-fuelled second charge at Blinky. Hie-bong is, quite simply, dead. Gang-Du has only a moment to cover his father's face with a piece of trash, meager protection from the incessant rain, before he is captured and the scene goes dark as a too-familiar black bag is slipped over his head.

The story resumes an indeterminate amount of time later when Nam-il continues the quest to find Hyun-seo on his own with the help of his activist contacts from college. His friend (played by Pil-Sung Yim, but I didn't catch a character name) views him with obvious disdain and wonders why Nam-il didn't simply track Hyun-seo via her cell signal from the beginning, but Nam-il, like the rest of the family is so thoroughly cut off from this world of casual privilege that he was unaware of something his friend clearly views as a basic resource. Worse still, it's clear that his friend's success is directly proportional to his willingness to sell out. As he leads Nam-il down some false leads, he nips off to another room in the vast office complex where a gaggle of bourgeois are waiting, cell phone in hand, to collect the bounty on the heads of the surviving, at-large members of the Infected Family. Nam-il gets the relevant information in the nick of time, employs his anarchic skills to make his escape, and stumbles directly into the path of a swarm of police and over a railing on to hard concrete. He only just manages to text Hyun-seo's location to Nam-Joo before he loses consciousness.

Nam-Joo's success is no more rousing than her brother's. She has opted simply to continue with the family's previous plan of searching the sewers, despite its complete failure and overwhelming poo gas. When she receives Nam-il's text message, she heads for the location, armed with determination and pointy, pointy arrows. She has the misfortune to run into Blinky who is on another run to vomit up some bodies, and her old friend hesitation gets her knocked into a deep trough for a good long while.

Gang-Du's troubles may be the worst of all, though, as he and his probably dysfunctional brain are drawing a lot of unwanted attention from both the American and Korean forces in charge. His insistence is taken as evidence of virus-related dementia, which is good news for the Americans who have persistently failed to find any virus at all in their pet soldier and yet have been furiously developing "Agent Yellow," chemical designed to combat any biological agents. Things go a bit Cronenberg and a bit Cuckoo's Nest as Gang-Du is strapped down for some good old-fashioned exploratory lobotomy. He weathers this surprisingly well, though, and subsequently manages to get himself and a hostage out of quarantine.

With Gang-Du's awakening, the Collective awakes. We find that Seoul has suddenly been swarmed with protesters against the crushing American approach to the madness and the fact that Korean authorities have rolled over for it. Gang-Du is literally the poster boy for the activists. And with the Collective, the rest of the Park family awakes. Nam-il arms himself with molotov-cocktails, his weapon of choice for protesting, and a homeless man who first attacks him for his lack of gratitude, then signs on to the mission because he's got nothing better to do. Nam-Joo pulls herself out of the trough and resumes her march on the sewer.

And Hyun-seo herself is moved to action by the arrival of the two street kids, the older one very much dead, the younger very much alive. At first, she merely shelters the boy with her, protecting him from Blinky's visits and the sight of his brother's body, and distracting him with talk of what they'll eat when they get out. But when Blinky starts vomiting up bones, she decides that it's time to get proactive. Stripping the bodies of clothing, she knots them into a ladder topped with a cop's night stick. After several tries, she hooks this over the sewer grate, only to find that she's made the ladder several feet too short (the fuck-up gene appears to be dominant).

Blinky's arrival interrupts her brainstorming and she and the boy retreat to their hole in the wall, which is too small for the mandibles of death to penetrate. As a frustrated and peckish Blinky settles down for a long winter's nap, Hyun-seo decides that it's victory or death time. She runs up the monster's back and makes a daring leap for the ladder. She just catches it. And that bastard Bong lets her make just a little bit of upward progress before she stalls. The frame tilts and zooms out as she lets go of the ladder and remains in exactly the same position, suspended from Blinky's tentacle. Blinky tenderly lowers her to the floor and gives her a head start, but not enough of one. Hyun-seo just has time to wrap herself around the boy before they are both shoved into Blinky's gullet.

Gang-Du arrives at the sewer too late to see anything but a pile of bones and Hyun-seo's name tag, still pinned to her vest, which has been knotted into the rope ladder. His fear of the worst literally immobilizes him, and he swings helplessly over the pit until roused by the return of Blinky, who's got a horribly familiar hand and wrist protruding from his mouth. This encounter galvanizes both Gang-Du and Blinky who race for the river side where Agent Yellow is about to be deployed, despite the hordes (hi ) of police and protesters milling about. The siblings converge on the monster and give it everything they've got, from molotov cocktails, to homeless-deployed gasoline, and a conveniently flaming arrow. When it seems that Gang-Du is out of the game and the monster is dead, Blinky makes a final break for it and finds himself at the end of Gang-Du's improvised spear. As the chemical clouds drive away all but the sickest of the crowd, Gang-Du pulls free the very dead body of Hyun-seo, still clutching the small boy, who proves to be not-so-dead. As the boy wakes, Gang-Du weeps over him, asking if he knew Hyun-seo, begging for a last connection to her.

In the pretty-predictable epilogue, a now-respectable-looking Gang-Du looks out on the Han from the small food store. He turns into the trailer to prepare a meal for himself and the boy. The television in the background shows a news program, endlessly spinning the Virus Incident and its aftermath. The boy complains that nothing good is on, and they switch off the television.

So you might have guessed that it's an odd film. When asked about how The Host compares with his other films (e..g, Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder, neither of which I've seen) director/cow-riter Joon-ho Bong noted that this is much more of a genre film, but one "situated in a specifically Korean context. The schizophrenia will become stronger." I have no idea what that second sentence means, but I just love it.

Taking schizophrenia literally (probably ill-advised in this case, given the potential translation wackiness and the fact that it's something of a Western culture-bound illness to begin with), the movie's mind/heart/breath is split after the death of Hie-bong and the recapture of Gang-Du, when the surviving members of the family are left to their own somewhat useless devices. But it's not just the narrative that is schizophrenic, it's Bong's entire approach to the film (and I mean that in a good way). He takes what he needs from the horror genre and discards what doesn't suit his purposes. And he's absolutely fearless in departing from formula in a way that I think would drive Hollywood people nuts.

Even many reviewers who seem to have liked them movie were impatient with its length and the contours of the film. But I not only didn't mind this, I found the deliberate departures from the pacing dictated by the horror/action genre interesting. Here, it's done in the service of a rather deft correction of a flaw in a lot of movies that wound up on MST3K. In B-Movies characters that appear on the canvas for no particular reason and/or disappear without explanation are thick on the ground and ripe for riffing.

In The Host, Joon-ho Bong introduces two miscellaneous characters about mid-way through the movie and actually develops them and integrates them into the story. Not only is the film unafraid to risk some serious down-time for character sketches (remember, we get the boys' story, then the family's respite and reconnection with their inner conception of Hyun-seo, then we get Gang-Du's back story), it circles back to reveal that the two street boys are, in equal parts, a flashback to Gang-Du's childhood and everyone's worst premonitions for Hyun-seo. With or without the Blinky problem, these working-class people are fundamentally preoccupied with the fear that their children will go hungry. And in the face of death by Blinky, the best the survivors can hope for is the privilege of ripping the monster limb from limb.

On the flip side of the pacing problem, Bong makes some good corrections in terms of how he keeps the still-very-much-alive Hyun-seo in the picture. Let's face it: She's a spoiled 13-year-old girl in a deep sewer and there's not a lot to see. She shows a moderate amount of pluck and practicality by checking first for still-living allies and second for anything useful on the body whenever Blinky vomits someone into her pit. Otherwise, she shelters in a hole in the wall and waits for the cavalry. There's not a lot to see here, so Bong does not engage in constant "meanwhile back at the ranch"-ness. He keeps her present in the other characters actions and dialogue and shows her to us when it serves the story.

In addition to saving us a lot of time and jarring cuts back and forth, Bong's willingness to limit the time spent on the precious waif keeps her very much an average kid until her situation demands that she show herself to be more. Much like Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth, Hyun-seo isn't some kind of perfect uberchild. There's nothing particularly admirable or lovable about her: She's as self-absorbed as any 13-year-old. She's kind of uptight, threatening to tattle on Gang-Du about his stolen coins and complaining about the bitterness of the beer he offers her. The family does not love her because she's just so damned swell and virtuous that you can't help it. They love her because she is theirs. It's what sent Tiffany Aching off to fight the Queen of Fairies with her frying pan, despite the fact that Wentworth really is a rather annoying, second-rate kind of brother. It's what we do.

For her part, Hyun-seo doesn't so much turn into the mother figure she never had (a plot device that, as you all know, makes me throw up in my mouth), as she draws on her experiences with her father to play the swaggering older sibling. True, our last image is of her cradling and protecting the boy, but there's nothing explicitly feminine or maternal about it. In fact, it's the same act that ended the lives of both the boy's brother and Hyun-seo's grandfather. It's just what we do. It's not just what the magical redeeming mother inside those of us with two X chromosomes does.

Bong's narrative and technical schizophrenia does yeoman's work in other ways, too. In terms of flat-out plot formula, The Host is doggedly in B-Movie territory: The monster is kind of a red herring, those who are supposed to be taking charge make ridiculous and irrational decisions, and a lot of what goes on doesn't make a lick of sense and there's not a ton of resolution on much of it. However, in what many might perceive as more of those pesky pacing problems, Bong carefully shows us all of the crazy in process. So when the American scientist and his Korean colleague shift from a rather compassionate conversation about how crazy Gang-Du is to an equally calm conversation about how they clearly have to drill into his frontal lobe, we're not left to speculate on off-screen wacky tobaccy: The power of the lone, empowered nut is there for us all to enjoy.

It's not too much of a surprise that The Host succeeds as a comedy and as a faithful homage to the rubber monster movie. It has to be said, though, that it also succeeds as a horror movie and as a drama. There aren't a lot of Alien-like suspense moments (I only use Alien because it's the iconic horror-thriller in American cinema. That movie has bored the crap out of me on the multiple occasions that I've seen it.), but they get you when they come. Many have tried to go to the Cronenberg place and failed. Personally, I think that Bong succeeds because he gets that Cronenberg is actually a comic genius and he structures his Dead Ringers homage with that in mind. The Blinky effects are uneven, but the way the creature moves (this kind of tail-assisted brachiation when moving from bridge to water and a lurching, dino-run on land) is a rollicking success. Just plain creepy, that is.

On the drama front, there is just so much appalling apathy and blaming of this poor, not-especially-fucked-up family that brought to mind some of my own unsavory tendencies in this direction and of which Black Snake Moan made me aware. I've referred to the Parks as the kind of thing you'd see on Cops, but that's not really accurate. They're not your drunken, be-wifebeatered, yokels; they're just a stagnant lower middle-class group of folks who just seem to keep messing up their opportunities. They've got bootstraps galore and they keep making dreamcatchers out of them, and it annoys the people around them. And it's not that it's any more acceptable to have vague annoyance and distaste be the normative reaction to your Jerry Springer/Cops types. It's just sobering and disheartening that the constant fault-finding our really-average-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things Joes encounter rings so true. There's no sentimentality in Bong's movie about how crisis brings out the best in us. But neither is there any particularly dystopian bent to it: People do what they do because they are practical, and it's that very mundane face that works dramatically.

Anyway, I've undoubtedly wrung any interest out of you that you might have otherwise had in the movie with my blathering. That's a shame, because it is a tremendously entertaining film as well as one that bears thinking about.

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A Way Down South (Again): Wishbone

So everybody celebrates the birth of their sweet booboo with some Southern Reconstruction Cooking and a Korean horror movie, right?

We had 7:30 reservations at Wishbone, but left pretty early because of the quantum nature of the Dan Ryan nowadays. Naturally, our chute north was well greased and even my failure to remember that one could not possibly turn left from Belmont on to Lincoln, coupled with the eternal search for parking, still had us at a table in the "adults only" section 20 minutes early.

The interior of the restaurant is likely to be something one either likes or hates. It's on the warm, primary-colored side of kitschy. Some of the fixtures are a bit too-too (like the fried egg lamps), but others are cute enough (I was a fan of the chicken-wired tube fixtures) and I definitely loved most of the mural work. In addition, the back hallway leading to the restrooms and kitchen featured art for sale by a number of people. There was a particularly striking oil painting called "Phoenicia" that I liked.

As for the core competencies of a restaurant, Wishbone swung and missed by having a broken blender and keeping me from my champagne cocktail. I had a "metropolitan" instead, that was fine, and a good glass of pinot noir with my meal. M had something with SoCo that I declined to try.

For our appetizer, we shared a corn cake with spicy shrimp. It was phenomenally good with its creamy texture and a spicy jalapeño bite blending with the slightly sweet corn. A wedge of the cake with a shrimp on top and some of the accompanying crema was just heaven.

The base menu is not especially large, but there is a generous specials section that seems to change daily. M had the meatloaf, because he hates me an wishes to drive me away (I broke out of nursery school over the issue of meatloaf; in all seriousness, though, I tried a bite, and it was not immediately vomit inducing, which is a big compliment coming from me). I opted for the crab cakes. And, of course, it's all about the sides, too. Based on our highly successful brush with Wishbone on New Year's Eve, I opted for the hoppin' john and the mac and cheese. M had a huge cup of cheese grits (I don't know how they do it, but Wishbone has a gift for taking the gritty unpleasantness out of both cornmeal and grits, bless them) and the mashed potatoes and gravy.

For dessert, he had bread pudding, which he, once again kept safely on his side of the table, and I had a positively scrumptious chocolate pecan pie a la mode (the vanilla ice cream was also exceptionally good). Everything was, as advertised, tasty comfort food. There's not a lot that makes the food stand out particularly, but it's flavorful, food, nicely prepared and presented, and a good option for a not-especially-fancy-or-expensive night out.

After dinner, we drove up to the Landmark Century Centre Cinema for the 10:05 showing of The Host. Scoring street parking north of Roosevelt Road twice in one night is enough to make one look up, expecting every minute to see the toilet seat from the space shuttle hurtling toward one, but we managed it. Having about an hour to kill, we walked down to Duke's for a drink. M had something that was basically a long island iced tea + Jaegermeister and Red Bull. It says . . . well . . . something about the Red Bull that the ghost of its flavor is evident over and above even Jaegermeister.

Next up: The Host.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Biscuits from on High: The Fried Chicken Throwdown at West Town Tavern

JRH (who is much older than I am, incidentally) claims that I hate him, despite the fact that it was I who brought him in contact with divine biscuits in celebration of his birthday. There's just no pleasing some dumbasses.

See, here's the thing: JRH's birthday is just two days before M. So every year for the last . . . 4 or 5 years at least, we've celebrated their birthdays together. This year, pulling that off involved a 3.5-hour drive from State College, PA, to Washington, DC (sorry J and W: it was an action-packed weekend with no time for side socializing), a 2-hour flight home, whirlwind changing, and a journey up to West Town Tavern. And all of that was on very little sleep to begin with plus an hour snatched away by a greedy government.

But it was all worth it, oh yes, it was worth it. The Fried Chicken Throwdown at West Town was designed as a benefit for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization whose mission is "to celebrate, teach, preserve, and promote the diverse food cultures of the American South"—work that's obviously more important now than ever. And far be it from pal M, TLBO, M, JRH, our pal B, and me to refuse to eat ourselves sick in the name of such a worthy cause.

Susan Goss kicked off the evening by introducing John T. Edge, the director of the SFA, who gave us a brief introduction to the SFA, fried chicken (which, he emphasized, has a silent "DEEP" in front of it, as far as any legitimate purveyor is concerned) in general, and the relationship between the SFA and the creators of the first two courses. He also explained that the complicated AV set up was required for the screening of a short film that the SFA had made about André Prince Jeffries whose hot chicken formed not only the second course, but the inspiration for next year's birthday bash. As intrigued as we were by the shiny equipment and the prospect of a little MSTing, I think we were all relieved that food was imminent and the film was definitely after-dinner entertainment.

The first course was Susan's rendition of Willie Mae Seaton's Scotch House Fried Chicken. Although this pre-Katrina reviewer foolishly leads with the pork chop, his assessment of the chicken is a good one: The batter is light and crisp, almost more like that found on really good fish and chips, but there is no question of it being heavy or trapping oil between itself and the chicken as can sometimes happen. In terms of seasoning, again, I concur with the reviewer that it is not particularly dependent on heavy spices, but mostly uses salt and maybe a little something else to bring out the juicy flavor of really good chicken. Our servings were smallish boneless cutlets accompanied by succotash and The Biscuit (more on those in a minute).

At our table, we had a refresher course on succotash before the food arrived: B hasn't had it in ages, as his wife, the possibly imaginary G, won't touch the stuff. This seems to be a girly phenomenon, because TLBO and pal M both eschew the mushiness of the lima bean. (In fact, I have it on good authority that "nothing bigger than a lentil" goes in pal M's mouth.) I have no lima bean objections, but I'm not overly fond of cooked carrots, which have always been a part of my succotash experience. (I see, however, upon checking a dictionary that this is yet another culinary fraud perpetrated upon me.) Much to my delight, then, did I note that the nasty, nasty carrots had been replaced by delicious chunks of bacon. Is it any wonder that Susan is one of my favorite chefs in the whole wide world?

And then there was The Biscuit. These are billed on the menu as Lora Tatum-Smith's Buttermilk Biscuits. I don't know who Lora Tatum-Smith is, but she is my Messiah now. That biscuit was like velvet to the touch. It was neither too dense nor so air filled that it was hard to get a handle on the taste. It was not too salty. It was not too floury. It was the Essential Biscuit. And it was only with difficulty that I did not weep when mine was gone.

The second course was a pair of Prince's Hot Chicken wings, rampant, on a caesar salad. Having now seen Ms. Jeffries and her devotees discussing various aspects of the hot chicken, I can only assume that we were experiencing the mild version. The wings were sticky to the touch, but not with the heavy, syrupy quality that often characterizes such things. The heat, to me, seemed to have a black-pepper foundation, with a tangy, hot pepper overlay. The quality and flavor of the chicken were still discernible underneath the heat, which, again, is not what you usually find when the heat is emphasized.

The caesar salad was remarkably good as well, with a light, fresh dressing, and slivers of practically perfect cheese. pal M opined that she would have added a single crouton to make it truly perfect. This led all and sundry at the table to express their extremely fond wishes for MORE BISCUIT MISS MAH BISCUIT SO MUCH! It was then that a staff member appeared from the ether with AN ENTIRE BASKET OF BISCUITS. As TLBO noted, this sudden response to intercessory baked good prayers presents something of a problem to the godless among us, particularly when the biscuits kept a-comin'.

The third course was Susan's own West Town Tavern Fried Chicken. Considering that I've eaten there, oh, let's call it an even 50 trillion times, this should be nothing new, right? WRONG. I have been depriving myself of this chicken for years, because I am a fool. Susan's chicken is not so different from Ms. Seaton's, although the batter tends more toward the crunchy end of the spectrum, so it's not quite as light. In other words, it was ideal for a more rib-sticking third course. The garlic mashed taters and the mushroom gravy were lusciously delicious, and the greens of unspecified latin name were also good (not vinegary or bitter, which is too often the case with greens). If someone forced me to criticize something about the whole meal, I'd say that the breast for course three might have been a touch too large. I think that pal M, through her moans of distress, might have been in agreement by the end of the evening.

The movie started up while we were all eagerly awaiting the lemon chess pie and blueberries (despite our groans of fullness). The pie was an excellent capper for the meal, being about as light as desserts get, yet still giving that satisfying sweet happy ending.

Mr. Edge had been a bit circumspect about the film aspects of SFA's endeavors. He repeatedly referred to the movies as "irreverent, but respectful." They'd intended to show both the movie about Prince's Hot Chicken and that about the Scotch House at the Throwdown, but the latter has been growing and growing. It currently stands at near an hour. The Prince's Hot Chicken movie was a lean, mean 12 minutes, which is fortunate for those of us who nearly laughed ourselves sick.

Much of it features an interview with Ms. Jeffries herself, who has a hilarious deadpan delivery, even when (especially when?) she is creating euphemisms on the fly for hot-chicken-induced rumpy pumpy. Other interviewees included a pair of members of film crew who are also addicts of the chicken. They imparted useful information about using the hotness of the chicken for self-defense. Another gentleman talked trash about the heat, then revealed that that he, himself, orders mild. But holding his own against the owner was the interviewee who turned out to be the Mayor of Nashville. That is a man I'd vote for without asking any further questions about his politics.

Interspersed among the interviews were educational film clips about the urges we experience and Your Friend the Digestive System. It was something that could have so easily become labored and unfunny, and yet the SFA did an absolutely stellar job keeping things light, funny, and informative. Immediately after the film ended, JRH declared "Next year in Nashville." And so say we all.

While we lingered, both Susan and Mr. Edge came over to chat with us. M and I were gratified to learn that Leah Chase will be reopening her place the Thursday before Easter. We're determined to get there (and Scotch House, now, it goes without saying) before the year's out.

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