Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Shake 'Em Up": High-Spirited Civil Disobedience

I decided recently (prompted by a viewing of The Palm Beach Story on TCM) that my goal in life is to be one-half of the madcap couple in a screwball comedy. For Christmas, my parents gave me a book that might help me achieve that: a genuine Prohibition-era cocktail-party guide.

(And of course, it was the perfect book to read on New Year's Eve. Happy New Year to all!)

Shake 'Em Up!: A Practical Handbook of Polite DrinkingShake 'Em Up!: A Practical Handbook of Polite Drinking by Virginia Elliott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Shake 'Em Up" is a book of cocktail recipes, party-giving tips, and hangover remedies, first published in the United States in 1930 -- when Prohibition was still the law of the land. Authors Virginia Elliott and Phil Stong even advise on what mixture of herbal extracts will give your bathtub gin the most authentic flavor, which got them in trouble with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Truth be told, a lot of this book consists of recipes for cocktails and canapes that probably won't appeal to a modern palate, which is why I'm only giving it 3 stars. The recipe for a "dry" martini would be considered outrageously "wet" these days (two parts gin to one part vermouth), and the appetizers are mostly variations on "slice white bread, butter it, and put something salty-fatty-savory on top."

Still, there's enough historical interest and insouciant 1930s wit to make this slim book worthwhile. For instance, to introduce their section on drinks for cocktail novices, the authors write "Tender young things, who have just been taken off stick candy, prefer complicated pink and creamy drinks which satisfy their beastly appetite for sweets and at the same time offer an agreeable sense of sinfulness. If you have any creme de menthe or creme de cocoa about the house, make them up some kind of a mess of it and push them under the piano to suck on it."

Civil disobedience has rarely been so cheerful or such good fun.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Macbeth is a Middle-Aged White Guy @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Over at the San Francisco Theater Pub blog I lay out my theory of why Macbeth gets produced so much more frequently than the other "great" Shakespearean tragedies: because Macbeth is a middle-aged white guy. It's a simple explanation, but not necessarily an obvious one. (I haven't heard anyone make this argument before, and was pretty pleased when I came up with it.) Agree? Disagree? Go over to the Theater Pub blog and tell me about it in the comments.

Bonus links:
My 2008 review of Patrick Stewart's Macbeth
A post from 2007 in which I discuss the three productions of Macbeth I had seen up to that date (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, high school, and college)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

"The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward" - The Only Movie-Novelization That Matters

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I'm a major Whit Stillman fan. As such, I was thrilled when my friend Stuart (at his own birthday party!) gave me a copy of Stillman's out-of-print novel The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward. It was all I could do not to stay up all night reading it. My review:

 The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian AfterwardThe Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward by Whit Stillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whit Stillman is one of America’s great cult filmmakers. In the last 24 years, he has written and directed four indie movies, and published this novel, based on his 1998 film The Last Days of Disco. He’s met with critical acclaim (one Oscar nomination, two films in the Criterion Collection) but has never become widely popular. Several of his films were financial flops*, and the novel is out of print.

Which is really a shame, because it’s a lovely entry in the kinda-pretentious-young-people-coming-of-age-in-the-big-city genre. The setting is Manhattan, circa 1980. The characters work in crappy jobs and live in crappier apartments, but as long as they can dance till dawn at the hottest nightclub in town, everything seems beautiful. They fall in love and break up and overanalyze one another’s motivations and try to figure out the proper way to live in the world as an adult.

Of course one of the major charms of Stillman’s films is his dialogue, and the novel faithfully reproduces classic scenes like the one in which a character argues that Lady and the Tramp “programs women to adore jerks.” But Stillman’s voice shows through even in the more narrative sections. E.g., describing the aftermath of a fight outside the Club: “The cops jumped out, but it was almost all over except for the mercurochrome.” There are also plenty of good moments in the novel that don’t appear in the film – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read the scene where Alice, our modest and virtuous heroine, kicks a dog** while jogging in Central Park.

So you can think of this book as something like the DVD extras or “deleted scenes” from The Last Days of Disco, but I even think it’s good enough to stand on its own. If you didn’t know better, you could almost think that it’s a minor-classic novel that got turned into an indie film, rather than the other way around. I know I said it's a shame this book is out of print, but I also feel like that somehow adds to its mystique. After all, it’s a story about the rare, precious, fleeting moments of one’s young adulthood – so it’s oddly appropriate that this book should be a rare and precious object itself.

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*CORRECTION 12/9/13 (morning): Via Twitter, Whit Stillman (!) writes to say that of his four films, "only Disco was unprofitable."

**CORRECTION 12/9/13 (afternoon): Via Twitter, Palacio Rojo Blog points out that the dog-kicking scene did appear in the movie. Oops! It's been a few years since I saw the film and I didn't recall that moment; perhaps the scene makes a bigger, funnier impact in the novel than in the film. (Stillman tweeted in reply that the dog was "a bad actor.") Oh well, another excuse to rewatch the film.