Monthly Archives: July 2020

XL Popcorn – Being There

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 809/1007Title: Being There
Director: Hal Ashby
Year: 1979
Country: USA

It’s been about 15 years since I last saw a film by Hal Ashby. That would be Harold & Maude, which ended up becoming an incredibly formative film for me. Like, I had always enjoyed a black comedy – but that was one of the first classic film where I had done it so extremely well. With Being There, I went in with no idea of what to expect and came out having watched something that felt incredibly prescient and featuring Peter Sellers at his finest.

It’s hard not to watch Being There and not draw parallels to the current political climate. That’s the power of such a smart satire though, there tends to be an immortal universality to it. The story of a man rising to political prominence through sheer misinterpretation and accident is one we know well, but in Being There the place of prominence is (as the last scene reveals) a nomination to run for office as the President of the United States.

Despite being a comedy, Being There is played nearly completely straight as you would expect from a political biography. I got 20-30 minutes in and was beginning to worry about this not being a comedy that would actually reach me. Then the political elements kicked in. Then, Peter Sellers had both Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Douglas turned up for him to play off  – and the film truly took off.

Being played straight is the incredible strength of Being There and none plays it better than Peter Sellers. In the hands of a lesser and less dedicated actor, his role of simple-minded Chance the Gardener would have been borderline insufferable. However, Sellers plays it with such idiosyncrasy and purpose that not only does this feel like someone who could exist but also someone you cannot help support him as he is on the ascent.

In the end, he understands nothing of what is going on and always communicates with a vague honesty. It’s one of those things you hear about the rise of populist leaders, this idea of honesty and speaking plainly – well here is a character who fits the bill but has no ulterior motives because he is unable to operate that way. Not difficult to see how he could be appealing. Man, I didn’t expect something that would be so politically relevant.

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Let’s Get Literal – The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 64/100Title: The Portrait of a Lady
Author: Henry James
Year: 1881
Country: UK/USA

Why can I not just get a large number of wins in a row on this reading list. Going from one of the best novels I have read in a while to one that became such a chore to read. The synopsis of the novel seemed interesting enough, but it took to long to get anywhere – an issue I keep having with novels from before the 20th century. Also, what is it with all these novels built in the narrative in which women who go outside societal expectations are unreasonably punished?

I know that this makes me sound incredibly uncultured, but this is one of those novels that could do with an abridgement. I know they do it for audiobooks (and I would give an abridged audiobook of this a go) but why couldn’t I find that for the printed version. Its quite frustrating. Also, it’s not that I can’t get into longer books,but more needs to happen than continued talking in the rooms of the higher classes. Not necessarily an explosion or a civil war, but even the change of venue to Italy wasn’t enough to get my interest back.

Honestly, I find It difficult to write about something that ended up leaving me so disinterested, so I guess this is where I’ll leave it.

Well, I picked The Portrait of a Lady for one reason – because Henry James appears more than once on my list. This now leaves me feeling mildly annoyed that I am going to be spending my commuting time on another novel by them. It’s at times like this that make me question whether, once I finish this 100, whether I want to add in a new book list of not.

🎻♫♪ – Pelléas et Mélisande Suite by Jean Sibelius

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
79/501Title: Pelléas et Mélisande Suite
Composer: Jean Sibelius
Nationality: Finnish
Year:
1905

A while ago, I listened to my first Sibelius piece in the form of his patriotic Finlandia. He has plenty of other pieces of the list, which just by name go to show how much of a thematic outlier it is.

Interestingly, Pelléas et Mélisande Suite is actually incidental music written by Sibelius to be played alongside the performances of the Swedish translation of the play of the same name. This was later taken and slightly expanded on to make this suite, but the piece maintains the same structure of nine tracks that correspond to different parts of the play. Incidental music is something that Sibelius did a fair bit of, but this is the only example on the classical list.

What I really appreciated in this piece was the very large woodwind section. There are some strings and a drum, but the predominant family of instruments was woodwind. It’s only really hit me that there was no piano, which does make for a refreshing change of pace. I loved that this piece also had a very pastoral feeling, similar to the feeling that Mahler gave me a month ago.

I have no context for what the play was actually about, but I don’t feel that I need it. The piece stands wry well in its own right and makes me look forward to all the other Sibelius pieces, most of them tone poems to come.

World Cooking – Djibouti

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Djibouti
Progress: 73/193

Looking at the map of Africa, I noticed that there were two large gaps where I have yet to make a post for. Exit time around, I will be looking to make something from the north-west corner, but for now I wanted to make something from the Horn of Africa. So, somewhat scientifically, I went for the country with the most entertaining name.

Djibouti is a small coastal nation separated from the Middle East by a narrow sea channel. Thanks to its position on the shipping lanes between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Djibouti is an important maritime port and makes a fair bit as a supply line to neighbouring Ethiopia. Being so close to the Middle East, and due to their colonial French past, the cuisine of Djibouti is an interesting mix of spice palettes. For the sake of today’s post I focused on finding dishes where you can see how Djibouti acts as the crossroads of Ethiopia and the Middle East.

Main and Side: Skoudehkaris and Laxoox 

Okay, so I didn’t have a great picture of these dishes on their own so I guess I’ll be talking about them together. First is the Skoudehkaris (recipe here by Global Table Adventure), which is apparently the national dish of Djibouti. It is a warming lamb stew with spices like clove, cinnamon and cardamom. It made the kitchen smell a lot like I was making lamb rogan josh, which would make sense as it shares a lot of the same ingredients with the exception of a final swirl of yogurt before serving. It’s delicious,but not the star of this plate.

That would be the laxoox (again, recipe from Global Table Adventure). I really want to get as much practice in before tackling Ethiopian injera, so I figured that these fermented flatbreads would be a good place to start. Also, it means I can use some of that millet flour I still have sitting in the cupboard which has totally not gone past its sell by date… yea.

In any event, I like to think that the sell by date thing helped with the fermentation process. It helped make for a dry bubbly batter which resulted in a very holey pancake. Considering just how sticky the batter is, I am glad that I bought a special new non-stick crepe pan – otherwise I would have been scrubbing until doomsday. Together with the lamb stew, these little hole-filled flatbreads were gorgeous.

So next time I am, again, putting off Asia and moving straight to the Americas. It’s been a while since I last cooked something from South America so I am really looking forward to seeing what I end up making. I think I’m going to continue with the idea of making a main and a side, mainly because I have a dessert coming up I am super looking forward to and I figured it would be good to get some savouries in.

XL Popcorn – Ikiru

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 808/1007Title: Ikiru
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Year: 1952
Country: Japan

Years. That’s how long it has been since I last saw an Akira Kurosawa film. I had watched most of his entries before properly tracking them on this blog, which meant that I felt he need to ration them out. With Ikiru I figured that I would need to watch it in a time where I was mentally okay enough to deal with the subject, but also where it would work as a reward for some previously work-filled times.

The subject of Ikiru (which means ‘to live’ in English) is a man who is near retirement from a long and meaningless job in bureaucracy who finds out he has terminal stomach cancer. Knowing this, he has an obvious crisis and wants to find out how to truly live in the little time he has left. This feels like the ultimate in Oscar bait when I write it out and yet Kurosawa never makes it feel too melodramatic – in fact he greate beauty in despair and deliver hop and an ending that has hope and a bit of an edge to it.

The image of the main character swinging in the snow is fairly iconic, to the point that it was inspiration for the cover of a Silent Hill game. It’s one of the main points where Kurosawa’s direction and Takashi Shimura’s awe-inspiring performance collide to make something truly unforgettable. I have seen Shimura’s in a number of films by now, all of them by Kurosawa, but his turn as the protagonist in Ikiru is something else. He is utterly human and so can break your heart with a look as his own heart breaks. He can haunt you with his mournful singing and can make you ache as he struggles to understand how he can find a purpose to make the remains of his life count for something.

Ikiru is also a cutting take down of the Japanese bureaucracy. In the final hour of the film, we are at the funeral of our protagonist watching his final months in flashbacks as the other bureaucrats diminish his final actions whilst also deferring to their superiors. I don’t know what act of Japanese beaurpcracy hurt Kurosawa, but wow does he take the system down a peg or two.

With one Kurosawa film left on the list, I now have another film that is being placed in my final 50. It’ll be a while, but given how all the previous Kurosawa films have gone down – Dersu Uzala is going to be a film worth waiting for.

Acclaimed Albums – In Utero by Nirvana

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 219/250Title: In Utero
Artist: Nirvana
Year: 1993
Position: #102

It’s been a bit of a fortnight. A bunch of ten hour days and some weekend work, but at least it’s over for now. It’s one of those times of year where I really end up throwing myself into a lot of music in order to keep me motivated. Nirvana’s In Utero really came at the perfect time for me by providing this busy period with some much needed attitude.

It has been years since I crossed Nevermind off the albums list – so during my listens of In Utero I thought it would be a good idea to refresh my memory. After all, it had also been years since I listened to that album in any capacity, mainly because I forget that I actually enjoy this type of music until it comes up in these lists. I don’t think I’ll have such a memory lapse with In Utero.

Compared to Nevermind, my enjoyment of In Utero was immediate. Going into it, the only song I knew was ‘Rape Me’ because of a cover by Tanya Tagaq and a strange barbershop version on South Park. I’d heard of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘France’s Farmer Will Have Her Revenge’, but never actually heard the songs. Guess that shows how weirdly sheltered my music listening is.

I guess what impressed me more about his album is that it wasn’t just a continuation of what they did on Nevermind. They had made what was being lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time and instead of trying to replicate it, they decided to pay homage to their rawer sound and find a way to further refine songs into the mainstream. What this ended up doing was making In Utero a varied treatment on what grunge could accomplish. Sure I love the big name songs on this album, but wow this is one of those tat demands being listened to all the way through without stopping.

Given how many years I was constrained by making my way through the massive numbers of albums from the 1970s, it is such a novelty to have pretty much any album open to me to listen to. Given that Neil Young is the only duplicated artist I have left, I think that’s a good enough steer for my next album

🎻♫♪ – Métaboles by Henri Dutilleux

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
78/501Title: Métaboles
Composer: Henri Dutilleux
Nationality: French
Year:
1964

Every time I see a piece of classical music on this list from the recent past, it always gives me a weird reality check. Like, what really is the definition of classical music? I always liked that joke in Futurama where ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mixalot was classical music because of age – but when you have a piece like this, which was written at the same time that the Beatles were beginning to come into their own, it kinda forces a different definition.

Anyway, this is the newest piece on this list that I’ve done for a while and it’s only twenty minutes long. It’s split into five tracks with names like ‘Flamboyant’. The central idea is that each piece has its own motif, toward the end of each section a new motif starts in the background and eventually takes over – at which point the next track starts. It’s a nice idea and makes for a briefer and more modern take on a classical suite – then again it was near impossible to tell where the dividing line between everything was. So in the end this becomes one piece with seemingly arbitrary divides.

Still though, it’s always good to remember what the more modern pieces sound like. Can’t wait to see what random classical piece gets pulled out next.

World Cooking – Solomon Islands

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Solomon Islands
Progress: 72/193

The macadamia pie recipe for the Marshall Islands will have to wait for another time (maybe when I’ve won the lottery) as I have instead chosen the Solomon Islands. Like many countries, the only reason I know about here is because of a fascination with maps and Olympics opening ceremonies. If you had asked me two days ago to find this nation on a map, however, I would have missed it by quite a way. Want to find it? Locate Australia and just go north-east, you won’t miss them.

The traditional cuisine of the Solomon Islands is of the same sort of the same group as Vanuatu, meaning that I could have taken the chance to make more putting a in banana leaves. I could have even made poi… if only I could have found taro roots in London to make it. Maybe I’ll find some eventually. But since I went traditional previously in this neck of the woods, I wondered what it would be cool to see what modern cuisine would be like. Due to occupations by the Spanish and the British, as well as immigration from Asia, we see their imprints on modern dishes, like the one I made today.

Main: Chili Taiyo

Is this actually made by Solomon Islanders? Honestly, I’m not 100% convinced, but I found this idea on a blog of a woman working in the Solomon Islands and seen the fun fact that this nation is a major exporter of tuna. Honestly, that was enough for me. At least the recipe (from here with further adaptations from here) came from a localish source, right?

Also, this tasted really good. Cooking the tuna until crispy is a class move that I had never thought about doing for, what is essentially, a Solomon Islands-Asian fusion dish. This was such a simple thing to make, probably one of the easiest things I have made for this list – and now that I have extra tins of tuna in the cupboard, I’m probably going to be whipping this out whenever I need a quick and cheap dinner to make. In the end, it’s a spiced tuna noodle dish with lime. There is nothing wrong here.

Now, according to the numbers I need to do Asia next. However, I have already been asked to make that meal for more than just myself and the husband, so another country will need to go first. Maybe I’ll find something cool from Africa, it’s always good to get ahead there.

(✿◠‿◠) Anime!!! – Macross

List Item:  Watch the 100 Anime to See Before You Die
Progress: 50/100Title: Super Dimension Fortress Macross
Episodes Aired: 36
Year(s): 1982-1983

I haven’t always been too impressed by the anime series that I have seen from the earlier section of the list. Some of them because of the extremely dated humour that made me squirm and others because the storylines were being stretched beyond all reasonable proportions. Super Dimension Fortress Macross managed to avoid all these traps and instead is the best of the older animes that I have seen so far.

The series itself can be split into two distinct sections. The first, longer section being about a conflict between humans and an alien race and the second section being the uneasy truce that exists afterwards. This could so easily have just been a mecha anime full of battle sequences and not much else. But, instead, this very much takes on board the idea of being a space opera where interpersonal relationships inspire many of the conflicts.

It’s weird watching Super Dimension Fortress Macross now as the events that were so futuristic are now set in the past. Then again, when I was growing up the idea of 2020 felt like it would be super futuristic and filled with flying cars. Probably for the best that we don’t have an Earth exclave on a refurbished alien ship as we deal in a life or death battle against an alien race of giants.

One thing that makes Super Dimension Fortress Macross an interesting part of anime history is the character of Lynn Minmay. In the show, she is a girl swept up int he conflict and, far from home, becomes a singer whose voice inspires the soldiers and wins over many of the enemies. This makes her the more iconic character from the series compared to the central fighter who somehow is attractive enough to inspire a love triangle. Lynn Minmay was one of the first characters to properly spin off their voice actress into becoming an actual music star and is a huge inspiration for a lot of cute girl anime types to follow.

So, I am halfway through the anime list and I have somehow managed to more or less evenly distribute my watches throughout the years. I’m still so excited to see what different genres of anime I have yet to discover on this 100-series snapshot.

World Cooking – Finland

List Item: Cook something from every countryCountry: Finland
Progress: 71/193

There was no question in my mind as to next Scandinavian country I would cross off this food list. I have always had a soft spot for Finland, even as a kid. I guess I identified this nation that was grouped with the others, but was still very much an outsider in terms of language, culture and history. This soft spot developed further when I visited Helsinki a few years ago and have since vowed to return to Finland in order to take advantage of the Midnight Sun film festival. One day, when I have a job that forbids taking time off in that time period, I plan to have my mind blown.

The big thing that I think bout when it comes to Finnish cuisine is leipäjuusto, or squeaky cheese. Sadly you just can’t get this in the UK. It is also hard to get things like smoked reindeer, which is another bit of a blow. However, Finnish cuisine is more than that. This is a cuisine that likes rye bread, native berries and mushrooms and so many different types of sweetbreads. I was actually spoilt for choice when it came to desserts, but instead opted to remake something that didn’t quite succeed a few years ago. Then for my main, I just wanted to make something I enjoyed in a small cafe on a Finnish island.

Main: Karelian Pasties

Karelian pasties are something that you see in many Finnish cafes and bakeries. This is a small past with a thin rye crust and a filling typically made of some sort of rice porridge. You can then top this with a number of different things, but egg-butter is the version I had in Finland. When warm, they make for a delightful snack – I just wish they weren’t such a bugger to make.

I don’t know if it’s the recipe (from Food) or a series of unfortunate events, but my making of these pasties was eventful. The rice porridge filling didn’t thicken up, so I strained it and then toppled up the finished product with extra liquid. The dough jaws beyond sticky and it was a trial to just get it unstuck from the mixing bowl, let alone roll into discs that could hold the porridge.

And yet, these were absolutely gorgeous. As a topping I went traditional with some egg-butter, but I also got some smoked ham because I figured that would work in addition. It really did. The recipe ended up making 16 of these, which made for a hearty lunch and a great pre-dinner snack. I also, gave some away to my mum too – which’ll teach me for gloating on WhatsApp. One day I might give this another go, but I might consult some other recipes first.

Dessert: Pääsiäisleipä

A few years ago, I made a version of this Finnish Easter bread and it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. The interior was still a bit raw and the rest was just dry. However, I knew there had to be a better recipe out there and I found it thanks to Bakers & Best. This is not he right time of year to make an Easter bread, seeing how it’s early February, but the local supermarket has been selling Easter eggs for nearly two months so I feel like seasonality doesn’t really matter.

This remake worked perfectly, even if it did take me 5-6 hours before I could get a chance to eat some. The smell of the cardamom alone as it cooked made me so incredibly hungry. The bread itself is an enriched dough with a lot of the same flavours that you find in a hot cross bun, but with added almonds and a closer crumb. I wish I had some emmental to eat with this, but butter was more than good enough. So glad that I have plenty of this to eat over the next day or two.

This was lunch, dinner is my next country. I managed to find a quicker recipe for Oceania, so I figured why not try to two countries in a weekend.