Gabriel Axel Made “Babette’s Feast”

Any discussion of the greatest movie about food includes Babette’s Feast, a Danish film starring the French woman Stephane Audran adapted and directed by Gabriel Axel based on a story by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen).

Gabriel Axel died yesterday. He was 95.

This trailer evokes just a soupçon of the sly pleasure the movie, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1987, delivers.

Other candidates for greatest movie about food? I like Tampopo, A Noodle Western a lot, but Stanley Tucci’s Big Night is a wonderful movie.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread is a breathtaking documentary about harvesting and making food, as delightful and moving as a symphony.

There are many other examples of movies about food, but two of note because they are withering social satires that also celebrate the well-made dish are Marco Ferreri’s Le Grande Bouffe, in which four friends decide to gorge themselves to death, and Peter Greenaway ‘s The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, a dazzlingly transgressive romance.

Verizon May Suck A Lot, Or Only A Little Less Than A Lot. But I Think Netflix is the Problem.

This story at arstechnica lays out some ambiguous broadband stats from Netflix about various ISP’s deliverance of our video feeds to our house.

In my house we’ve noticed in recent months that we can rarely watch Netflix, delivered through our first generation Roku, even after I moved the router into the same room (about 20 feet apart).

And that comes after years of perfectly fine service. Somehow the system is getting worse.

At first, the chart in the article suggests that Verizon (and Comcast) are throttling performance, but the evidence for that doesn’t seem to exist (though Verizon’s recent net neutrality victory is grist for the throttling mill, and a warning of what could happen if our internet pipes aren’t protected from pipe-holder taxation.)

What I know for sure is that Netflix relentlessly tries to deliver a HD signal into my house. My HD TV loves that, but my contract with Verizon is for a fairly modest bandwidth (3mb down, 1mb up, the max their system can somewhat reliably deliver). Whenever we watch Netflix, we have to set the program up and then wait either a long or an interminable amount of time for Netflix to figure out that we don’t have the throughput to handle the signal they want us to have. Once we go from HD four dots to two dots, based on their evaluation, we can watch our TV, usually without problem.

But this transition always takes a stupid amount of time. WE DON’T HAVE THE BANDWIDTH FOR HD, we scream, but Netflix can spend scores of minutes trying to pump the HD our way. And does not seem to memorize our settings, nor allow us to set our own (gimme gimme gimme two dots!)

Tonight we waited nearly a half hour (doing other things, too, we’re not hopeless) waiting for Netflix to tamp down our usage rate so we could watch our show, and then quit because it didn’t happen.

Netflix used to tamp down bandwidth rates with great agility. I’ve read articles about how they maximized flexibility, and valued their ability to reduce their bandwidth footprint, but that no longer seems to be the case. I want to blame Verizon for this, since they offer fairly crappy service on my block, but I think the greater problem is that Netflix for some reason no longer values that elastic delivery.

They want to deliver HD even if you’re not capable of receiving it, and that’s screwing up my watching of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. I dislike Verizon, but it seems that Netflix is the one who can fix this problem.

Update: It looks like Netflix agrees the problem isn’t Verizon.

Update (February 22): It looks like Ars Technica now thinks the problem is Verizon, demanding substantial peering payments.

On The Road, With Maps and Directions

Screenshot 2014-02-10 12.39.05When I was a high schooler I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I read the novel multiple times and I read all of Kerouac’s other novels, there are many, some of them multiple times, the better to understand it and him.

I exulted when Visions of Cody, something of a companion piece to On The Road, was released, full of diary fragments and transcribed recordings of conversations between Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarity in the novel), and my friend Peter and I went to a seminar at Hofstra University where a professor played recordings of some of those very conversations. At the time, just a few years after Kerouac’s death, much of his output was still hidden in the cardboard boxes of his papers and other items he left behind.

It was enough to keep a pipe of ephemera and data flowing for the forty years since, which is why I ate up the original scroll version of On The Road a few years back (truly exciting) and the “lost” collaboration between Kerouac and William Burroughs, which was released some few years ago, The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (surprising lively and moving), even though I no longer obsess over him, or the book.

My buddy Russell and I even planned on hitchhiking to Colorado for the summer following 11th grade, though our moms talked us into taking the Greyhound instead. Which was fine, because Jack often rode the Greyhound in the fellahin night of red brick sunrises, too. But once we landed in Evergreen we headed out to the Grand Canyon by thumb, dodging the highway patrol and the crazed, finding the heart of America inside the cabins of the cars and their drivers that carried us safely there and back. Just like Jack did, haunted along the banks of the Susquehanna by a shade or a memory or a portent, we found magic on the road, in whatever guise it came.

What I never thought to do was to map the actual roads Jack and Neal traversed, but it turns out just about everybody else has. Some examples.

In Kerouac’s journal is a hand-drawn map of his cross country trek.

A guy named Dennis Mansker has made interactive Google maps of all the trips in On The Road, full of odd and arresting details.

Screenshot 2014-02-10 12.47.08A guy named Gregor Weichbrodt input all the hard destinations listed in the book into Google Maps and asked for directions. The step by step routes are spontaneous prose of a distinctly mechanical perspective, but wonderful (to me) for the mere idea of it.

The Oldest Subway Tunnel in the World

Screenshot 2014-02-06 10.52.29One day a few years ago I was walking along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and there was a makeshift cordon of orange safety cones in the middle of the street, an open manhole cover inside the cordon, and a ladder sticking out of the manhole. There was also, at this busy intersection outside of Trader Joe’s, a line of mostly young people waiting to be escorted through traffic to the ladder, upon which they would descend into the subterranean… what?

Some of the people waiting told us there was an old forgotten subway tunnel at the bottom of the ladder and they were signed up for a tour of it. $15 they told us the tour cost, and while that seemed like a lot of money to see a hole, that hole looked awfully intriguing.

I didn’t hear much about the forgotten subway after that, I guess because—as this story in The Verge says—the city revoked the tour operator’s license to offer them. The history of the tunnel, its discovery by an intrepid young man, and the ways it defined and changed his life, makes for good reading.

The intrigue continues.

What Do I Desire?

watts-wisdomofinsecuritycoverAlan Watts was the Joyous Cosmologist, as the title of a book he wrote claimed. He was a major philosophical figure in the 50s and 60s, the writer of many books, and a popularizer of Asian religions and philosophies.

Here he gives a Ted Talk that long predates Ted, and gets to one of the key questions about life. He does it artfully, uses the word retch in a memorable phrase, and you can listen here.

Health Care in France: Not perfect, but. . . .

A first person account of the expensive French health-care system, which seems to work exactly the way Medicare works, only better because it is bigger.

The key points:

  • Everyone gets basic care as part of the package they pay for with taxes.
    Above a certain level of coverage, people pay for extra insurance to suit their situations.
    Employers sometimes provide this secondary level of coverage.
    Care is rationed so the system can sustain itself, but care is privileged according to urgency of need.
    Care is designed to more efficiently and effective use facilities, lowering cost.
    Patients must be told the cost, in advance, of all procedures that cost more than 70 euros.
    All costs are transparent.
    The French spend a lot of their GDP on caring for the society, including health care.
  • This seems so much smarter than allowing insurance companies into the part of a process in which we all implicitly share the risk. That is, the overall health costs from cradle to grave of everyone is known. We don’t know how the costs will be distributed to each family and each individual, but we know the total, which is why we spread the risk. The collective cost of the total, or rather our slice of it, should be our individual cost.

    Insurance companies know this. But they provide a service that adds little to no value to the process, and increases the cost. They make a profit, which is an additional tax we pay, and for what?

    How do we know that they increase costs without adding value? Medicare delivers similar services and costs much less.

    I’m sure that things aren’t always perfect in the French health-care system, bring your own towels, but doesn’t it make sense to craft a system that carves out wasteful players and improves our understanding of our individual health needs can be addressed with quality and at the lowest cost?

    Novel: Tao Lin, “Taipei”

    Taipei_510x510 A lot of people think that in his 2013 novel, Taipei, Tao Lin has written a great novel about contemporary life and love.

    I read his earlier short novel, Richard Yates, last summer, and enjoyed it. He has a style that is hyperselfconscious. His narrator in Taipei, Paul, is a novelist, and is continually aware of what is said, the context in which it was said, what was heard and the context in which it was heard. He evaluates each said thing and every expression and act based on all of it. Paul can be as tiresome as you might imagine.

    Paul grew up in the US, but his parents were from Taiwan and have moved back there. They like it when he visits, which he does a couple of times in the novel. But mostly he lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2010 or so. He’s interested in meeting girls, he’s recently broken up painfully, and his next few months will be spent on a book tour across America to support his most recent work (not clear whether it is poetry or a novel), and obliterating all sense of memory, so that all he has left is the memory of what happened in the last few moments. A quote from page 75:

    Having repeatedly learned from literature, poetry, philosophy, popular culture, his own experiences, most movies he’d seen, especially ones he’d liked, that it was desirable to “live in the present,” “not dwell in the past,” etc., he mostly viewed these new obstacles (note: the long list of drugs he takes regularly) to his memory as friendly and, sometimes, momentarily believing in their viability as a form of Zen, exciting or at least interesting. Whenever he wanted to access his memory (usually to analyze or calmly replay a troubling or pleasant social interaction) and sensed the impasse, which he almost always did, to some degree, or that his memory was currently missing, as was increasingly the case, he would allow himself to stop wanting, with an ease, not unlike dropping a leaf or a stick while outdoors, he hadn’t felt before—and, partly because he’d quickly forget what he’d wanted, with a sensation of loss or worry, only an acknowledgment of a different distribution of consciousness than if he’d focused on assembling and sustaining memory—and passively continue with his ongoing sensory perception of concrete reality.

    So, he’s kind of like the hero of Memento, except the obliteration of memory is self-inflicted, a way to escape the self consciousness he’s always felt and which he feels has robbed him in his life experiences.

    At the same time, he’s brutally relentless in his self-examination of the moment, something his young girlfriend Erin feels from his ongoing descriptions of what is going on between them, from the perspective of most of the other players, and from himself. Paul is a proxy for Tao Lin, and he’s sometimes charmingly clever and often irritatingly self-involved. He is also very plain spoken and engaging, and the Russian dolls he unboxes page after page are sometimes comic, other times tedious, but his is a third person voice that is as immediate as the first person.

    There is also quite a bit of apparent social content in Taipei. The characters are modern consumers of video, internet bandwidth and healthy foods (and guilt-out when they have to eat something that doesn’t meet their standards). Lin seems to be something of a critic of the consumer culture, or the way modern communications have fragmented us, but just as often the electronics are something more positive. The subtle satire is more the reader’s voice using Lin’s observations as evidence. Lin seems more a psychorealist in his intentions than a social critic.

    Paul, Erin and their friends take Thompsonian (or Burroughsian) amounts of drugs, all the time, with very little worry about the mechanics of this desire. They call, the drugs arrive, for the most part, or are just there. There is hardly any concern about money, they never wait for the man, the context is not realistic but more like an extended dream of living a quasi-adult life with the emotional immediacy of a third grader. Paul also never talks about the history of writers who preceded him who have built personas or books off of drug use. Given the richness of reference, it is an odd omission.

    Taipei is something of a schematic, a drawing board philosophical inquiry into the manner of memory obliteration, existential drug-fueled YouTube creation and love without the ability to express anything soft. Perhaps most curious is a passage in which Paul declares that his favorite novelist is Ann Beattie, and also Tao Lin’s (I subsequently read in an interview with Lin, who also listed Bret Easton Ellis among his favorite favorite writers). Paul’s favorite novel, he says, is Chilly Scenes of Winter. Remembering Beattie’s plainly declarative writing, I return to the Chilly Winter of those young lives trying to connect in another time of social upheaval, which doesn’t feel at all like Taipei on a superficial level, but once you get past the writer’s style makes them feel quite similar indeed.

    Taipei is far from a great novel, but it is ambitious and idiosyncratic and often good fun. I like that sort of thing.