Sunday, July 31, 2011

Great Film Review: Primer

Primer, the 2004 debut of writer/director/actor/everyman Shane Carruth was made for $7,000 in Dallas, TX. The staff of the film was limited to five people, with family members, friends and random passerbys filling out the credits. It went on to win the 2004 Alfred P Sloan prize at Sundance, an award that is given to the best film that focuses on science or technology. Following this buzz, it went on to accrue a modest box office take of 424,000 before being released onto DVD and becoming the cult classic it is now. I'm not sure what it is about sci-fi/time travel films, but they tend to join the cult canon at an remarkable rate (see Donnie Darko, Moon), regardless of meager box office sales. I believe that the reason for this goes against popular thought, namely, that audiences like to be challenged by films and actually enjoy piecing together a plot themselves. In most film studios, the risk of losing an audience is too big to bear, and any remotely confusing scenes are abruptly followed by the protagonist cleverly explaining the situation to another character for our benefit. For a film like Primer, this hand-holding is thrown out the window, and it is all the better for it.

What makes Primer so thrilling is its sheer audacity to unabashedly use scientific jargon and equations, without bothering to slow down or explain themselves. Even as a scientist myself, most of the terminology was way over my head, but the fact that I could recognize anything at all gave the film an authenticity and a voyeuristic quality that made the "budget" production value seem irrelevant. This complete disregard for the audience does not begin and end with scientific jargon. There are scenes where things happen and it is not apparent until later (if at all) what is happening and its significance. There is a voiceover narration from the beginning, but it is just as ambiguous as the characters themselves. If I am making the film sound like an obscure art-house film that means whatever-you-think-it-means-man, please don't be scared away. Everything you need to know plotwise, is there in the film. In fact, ambitious people have even made Primer timelines to better answer the WHEN questions. And with the film clocking in at a brisk 77 minutes, you can easily queue it up again once its finishes and be amazed with how much more sense it makes (though admittedly, not completely). Scientist or not, sci-fi fan or not, give Primer a chance. You'll be a lot of things, but disappointed won't be one of them.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Old Song Review: Robbie Basho - Night Way

Robbie Basho is widely regarded as a guitar pioneer. As an orphan in Baltimore, he taught himself acoustic guitar and fell in love with the steel string guitar, being particularly enchanted with the "fire" it conveyed that nylon strings could not. As an artist, he was massively influenced by Asian art and philosophy and counted the  great Ravi Shankar as an influence and a friend. He often played a twelve string guitar with various open tunings in an attempt to capture features of the Indian music he cherished. With this preface, I anticipated his remarkable complexity and creativity. What I did not expect was his incredible voice.

"Night Way", the seventh song on his absolutely essential Visions of the Country LP from 1978, starts much in the way you would expect from a guitar virtuoso. They are some sitar-like twangs and pickings, squiggling here and there, gradually gaining in momentum and focus as the song approached a full gallop. After 90 seconds or so, a new sound enters, fluttering above the rest. It's Basho himself, singing in one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard.

His voice is riveting and pure, and within it I can hear the hundreds of artists that have sprouted from it. From the trembling soul of Antony and the Johnsons, to the more experimental (but no less captivating) David Thomas Broughton, I was flabbergasted by what I was hearing. An immense talent I had never heard of, was changing the way I looked at some of my favorite artists today. Much like seeing the film Citizen Kane upends how you view everything that came after it, Basho's art stands tall decades ago, its shadow continuing to stretch ahead in time.

"Night Way"

"Blue Crystal Fire"

Monday, July 25, 2011

EDU: Dr. Pepper Ribs

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Chipotle Pulled Pork I made a few weeks ago, I decided to hit up the Homesick Texan blog again when I found myself with 4 pounds of spareribs and no grill to do them right. Surely there must be SOME way I can make enjoyable ribs without smoking and barbecuing them for 36 hours. As it turned out, Ms. Texan had just the thing - something called "Dr. Pepper Ribs". I'm not a big fan of Dr. Pepper (tastes like fancy Cherry Coke), but this blogger raved about its BBQ power, so who was I to turn up my nose. Amazingly, the kit and kaboodle only took 3 hours and I was able to do it in the oven. The oven part was a bit of a mixed blessing, as it was already hot enough in my apartment, but for convenience, you can't beat it.

For this recipe, I made both a rub and a BBQ sauce/glaze, and here's what you'll need for both.

For the rub

1/4 cup of salt
1/4 cup of black pepper
1/4 cup of brown sugar
4 teaspoons of mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne
2 teaspoons of chipotle powder
1/2 teaspoon of allspice

I had to go and buy mustard powder, but all the rest I had kicking around from my last BBQ experiment, so it was a pretty painless process. I was a bit taken aback by all the salt and pepper, but tried not to overthink things.

Mix all this together and pat into the meat. Then wrap it in Saran wrap and place it in the fridge for at least 4 hours. I left mine overnight and didn't notice any problems. Supposedly salt starts to "cure" meat after 6 hours, which will give it a ham/bacon flavor, but mine seemed just fine. Not that I would have minded some bacon notes.

Here's the bouncing bundle of meat fresh out of the fridge.

 Not terribly exciting/appetizing at this juncture, I'll concede, but just you wait. After adding 1/4 cup of Dr. Pepper to the pan and covering it with tinfoil, I slid this in the oven at 300 degrees for 90 minutes, meat side up.

While this cooked, I started on the glaze. Here's what you'll need.

2 cups of Dr Pepper
1 cup of ketchup
1/2 cup of mustard
1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of molasses
2-4 teaspoons of chipotle powder

Those Chipotle flakes I bought a couple months ago have seen a lot of action lately, and I can't get enough of their smokey, spicy flavor. As such, I added 4 heaping teaspoons to the sauce. In a large saucepan, I brought the ingredients to a simmer and left it to reduce into a thick sauce for 30 minutes. The recipe used the adjective "syrupy" but mine just looked like a barbecue sauce. It tasted good, so I didn't sweat it.

After 90 minutes, take out the ribs and remove the foil. Spread the sauce on both sides and cook, uncovered for another 30 minutes, meat side up (still). Repeat this process one more time, leaving some sauce for the final step. The glaze cooked right into the ribs and smelled fantastic.

After the 2nd time, glaze both sides a final time, and place each side under the broiler for ~5 minutes to give them a good char and crunch.  When they popped out, they looked pretty glorious and my apartment smelled like some Mississippi BBQ Shack.

All that remained was the serving and enjoyment. Make sure to have plenty of napkins and floss nearby. You may also want a little more BBQ sauce to throw on top to keep things moist, but they were quite delicious on their own. What BBQ item should I tackle next? I'm thinking brisket. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Long (as hell) Trail

Author's Note: Before you tell me to HTFU or STFU or any other precious acronym, let me first say that I hiked 54 miles in thong sandals after the boots I borrowed gave me hellacious blisters and made my big toenails look like those of a mummified corpse with nary a complaint.

Behold some unfiltered and uncensored thoughts about hiking:

Hiking is fucking terrible. I'm sure there are stand-up bits from comedians about how ridiculous it is and why white people need to stop kidding themselves playing Russian roulette with Lyme disease or West Nile virus or a bear mauling and stay in the 21st century where we belong. Whatever possessed otherwise sane and rational human beings to make their life as miserable as possible for an extended period of time should have evaporated around the time of the Oregon Trail, but day after day people stuff an unnecessary amount of items into an unnecessarily large backpack, and proudly march into the wild. The glow of adrenaline lasts maybe 15 minutes, before the harsh reality of hiking sets in: it is fucking terrible.

To clarify, day hikes and camping are wonderful-hell, even a jaunt into the woods can be therapeutic. When you are carrying more than a tent, food and beer, the fun quotient takes a nosedive. Carrying a full hiking backpack is a bit like carrying a heavily sedated 2nd grader on your back. You futilely loosen and tighten straps to alleviate painful jabs into your back and shoulders. You carry 4 pounds of water that scarcely seems worth it. Mosquitoes and deerflies dive bomb you from all angles and you have no recourse but to swing languidly at them. They have locked on a target and will follow you for miles until you stop for water or die. You have to physically restrain yourself from checking your watch every two minutes and the map every thirty seconds.

You may be able to distract yourself by the scenery, but beyond the ninety seconds a day you are above the treeline, the rest of the sights range from heaping piles of moose poop and large piles of mud. It occurs to you at some point that hiking is probably an incredible workout (my heart rate held steady around 180bpm from 8-4 every day), but who works out for eight hours a day? It is at this point when it dawns on you that hiking is no longer an act of leisure and has become your job. You wake up at daybreak on a wooden floor within a mesh cocoon to keep out the bugs, which still have the audacity to stab their tiny proboscises into anything in contact with the fabric. You eat a piece of jerky for breakfast and wash it down with a bag of fruit snacks and a granola bar. Everything tastes terrible. You want salt and fat and grease and sugar. Not protein and Xanthan gum, 200 calories you will burn off before your first water break. You no longer derive pleasure in things you used to enjoy and sympathize with that Zoloft rock. Your shoulders are sore and you have a crick in your back that you can't crack out. When you finally make it to a shelter, you roll out a sleeping bag, eat a bag of tuna fish and a handful of peanuts and go to straight to bed for 12 hours. You smell terrible and other people somehow smell worse. Sometimes it is so bad it wakes you up.

After a few days, the callouses start and you think you might survive. When you cross roads, you feel a primal urge to flag down/hijack passing cars and check into a hotel. Somehow water has become all you can be bothered to care about, but you still play "stream roulette", always looking for a cleaner, nicer one until you realize you are out of water, 3 hours from the nearest shelter and haven't seen so much as a juicy puddle in hours. SS and I did this twice. You find yourself sharing food for the selfish aim of shedding a few extra ounces from your backpack and suddenly feel a camaraderie with those Tour de France ninnies who insist on biking without their valve caps.

Hiking brings out the best and worst in a person. If you do it long enough, you will be reduced into survival instincts that are not glamorous but do what they are supposed to do: keep you alive. Alive so you can return to the real world and warn others. And also to call "bullshit" whenever anyone says how much they love hiking.                    

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

To be perfectly honest, I didn't have high hopes for Mr. Vernon's sophomore album. I adored For Emma, Forever Ago when it came out of nowhere nearly three years ago, but its circumstances seemed a little too trite to be much more than lightning in a bottle for some schlubby guy. I mean, if breaking up with a steady girlfriend, contracting mono and moving to a secluded Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter isn't enough to stir up somber feelings in a man, I don't know what is. It's the hipster perfect storm. At this point, everything he does is preceded by his 'legend', including this review. Huge industry names jumped on his bandwagon in recent months, but apart from sampling his back catalog, I didn't hear anything that convinced me he could avert a precipitous fall from grace.

Ladies and Gentlemen, might I present Exhibit 546983 in the case of Hipster Elite Backlash vs. Shut Your Goddamn Mouth For Two Seconds. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (yes that's the title), is fantastic. It is tender and gorgeous in the same way For Emma was, but considerably more adventurous, as Vernon has an entire band at his disposal this time around. The brilliant Colin Stetson lends his brusque saxophone, Sean Carey (fresh off his own album) handles the drums gracefully, making even the most jarring sounds feel natural. The most interesting wrinkle on Bon Iver, Bon Iver is what Vernon has done with his lyrics. Even with befuddling titles like Flume and Re:stacks on For Emma, the subject matter and lyrics themselves were clear and the songs themselves drew their power from it (See: skinny love). On this album, 6 of the 10 songs are geographical locales (though Wash. is a tossup), and the lyrics aren't any more helpful, leaving two possible conclusions. Either he's tired of people singing along with every song and wants to throw the legion of teens a curveball (doubtful), or he's decided to make art fit the sound rather than vice versa. That's not to say he's stringing along non sequitors, but 'ramble in the roots, had the marvel, moved the proof be kneeled fine’s/glowing storing up the clues, it had its sullen blue bruised through by showing' doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. And these aren't translations by some tone deaf fan, these are Vernon's own lyrics he shared on his website. 

So why is this album such a colossal triumph? Because despite the misdirection and new hats on display, this album shares the warm core of its predecessor. Because for every nonsensical line, there's a nugget that stops you in your tracks and feels like an epiphany. 'Holocene' is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The first verse is a cypher, but from within this fog you hear Justin sing '...and at once I knew I was not magnificent' and the chills are unavoidable. Throughout this album, fleeting lines like this will snag your attention, before the song submerges into shadows again, but as you listen again and again, you find yourself speaking Vernon's language, and every line gains the gravitas of the first ones that caught your ear. It is intoxicating in the purest sense and now I sing along to every 'sound', whether I know the words or not.