Jul 262018
 

Today is the birthday (1928) of Stanley Kubrick, often called one of the greatest and most influential directors in cinematic history by directors themselves. His films, which are mostly adaptations of novels or short stories, cover a wide range of genres, and are noted for their realism, dark humor, unique cinematography, extensive set designs, and evocative use of music. A bit of biography first, then I will weigh in with personal comments, and some foodie stuff.

Kubrick was raised in the Bronx in New York City, and attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945. Although he received only average grades, Kubrick displayed a keen interest in literature, photography, and film from a young age, and taught himself all aspects of film production and directing after graduating from high school. After working as a photographer for Look magazine in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he began making short films on a shoestring budget, and made his first major Hollywood film, The Killing, for United Artists in 1956. This was followed by two collaborations with Kirk Douglas, the war picture Paths of Glory (1957) and the historical epic Spartacus (1960). His reputation as a filmmaker in Hollywood grew, and he was approached by Marlon Brando to film what would become One-Eyed Jacks (1961), though Brando eventually decided to direct it himself.

Creative differences arising from his work with Douglas and the film studios, a dislike of the Hollywood industry, and a growing concern about crime in the US prompted Kubrick to move to the United Kingdom in 1961, where he spent most of the remainder of his life and career. His home at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, which he shared with his wife Christiane, became his workplace, where he did his writing, research, editing, and management of production details. This allowed him to have almost complete artistic control over his films, but with the rare advantage of having financial support from major Hollywood studios. His first British productions were two films with Peter Sellers, Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Kubrick, because he was a manic perfectionist, assumed control over most aspects of the filmmaking process, from direction and writing to editing, and took painstaking care with researching his films and staging scenes, working in close coordination with his actors and other collaborators. He often asked for several dozen retakes of the same scene in a movie, which resulted in many conflicts with his casts. Despite the resulting notoriety among actors, many of Kubrick’s films broke new ground in cinematography. The scientific realism and innovative special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were without precedent in the history of cinema, and the film earned him his only personal Oscar, for Best Visual Effects. For the 18th-century period film Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick obtained lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA, to film scenes under natural candlelight. With The Shining (1980), he became one of the first directors to make use of a Steadicam for stabilized and fluid tracking shots. While many of Kubrick’s films were controversial and initially received mixed reviews upon release—particularly A Clockwork Orange (1971), which Kubrick pulled from circulation in the UK following a mass media frenzy—most were nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, or BAFTA Awards, and underwent critical reevaluations. His last film, Eyes Wide Shut, was completed shortly before his death in 1999 at the age of 70.

In the 60s and 70s I was pretty clueless about the names of movie directors, but I had watched a number of Kubrick’s movies without realizing that they were all directed by the same guy because they were so fundamentally different. I saw Dr Strangelove, 2001, and Clockwork Orange, more or less when they were first released, and I saw The Killing and Paths of Glory on television around the same time. By the time Clockwork Orange came out, I was in college and my friends, who were much more savvy than I was, alerted me to the fact that Kubrick was the director and that he was responsible for 2001. It was not until I saw a retrospective of all of Kubrick’s films (to date) in 1981 at Purchase College, where I was teaching (and which has a well-known conservatory of Theater Arts and Film), that I was able to fit all of the pieces of the puzzle together, and marvel at his extraordinary range and depth of cinematic ideas.

Around the time that I saw the retrospective, I used the original book of Clockwork Orange in my Freshman Studies class, and screened the movie alongside reading the book. That was another eye-opening experience because Kubrick’s film follows the book quite closely, although the endings are fundamentally different (no spoilers – read the book). If all you know of Kubrick are Clockwork Orange and 2001, you will recognize the skill with which he melds image and music in the two. I will break with the critics in saying that I found 2001 highly tedious. In my ever-humble opinion, special effects trump story in the movie, and we have been paying for this triumph ever since. All my friends loved seeing docking at the space station to the Blue Danube, and plunging through a kaleidoscopic vortex hooked on to the monolith, quite possibly because they were smoking something other than tobacco (back in the days when cinemas allowed smoking). I found them then, and found them now, a big yawn. I’m not happy with special effects that do not advance the story line, even though they are impressive. I did like HAL and there is a post here to prove that: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/hal-9000/ At the time I was also a fan of Richard Strauss’s music, although I occasionally wish that people knew more about Thus Spake Zarathustra than the opening bars. I did wonder at the time, also, whether the pairing of the music of Johann and Richard was a wink to those in the know.

For me, Dr Strangelove will always stand as his masterpiece, not least because of the tour de force of Peter Sellers’ acting – played perfectly straight in all three parts, yet so comprehensively different – and the sheer genius of casting Slim Pickens as the bomber pilot. I don’t know how many times I have seen the movie, but I’ll put it on again once I finish this post. It cracks me up every time I watch. Pair it with Paths of Glory and you see Kubrick’s anti-war stance from completely different angles.

Kubrick’s curtain call, Eyes Wide Shut, produced 12 years after his previous movie, was much anticipated, and I, like many critics, ended up being disappointed after the long wait and endless fanfare. To be fair, I find Cruise and Kidman to be underwhelming as actors to begin with, but there seemed to be way too much Kubrick stagecraft, and way too little in the way of a coherent story line (with a seemingly pointless need to try to tie up loose threads at the end). For a supposedly erotic tale, it’s not even all that sexy. Maybe, again, that’s because I think of Tom Cruise as a short, funny-looking scientologist with a fat ego and not much else.

I am impressed by the fact that Kubrick features dining scenes in many of his movies. In 2001, for example, every situation – including the opening with the hominids – features eating prominently. Perhaps it’s just my proclivities as a cook, but quite often I leave a movie thinking: “How did we spend so much time with these characters, and yet never saw them eating once?” I never ask that question after a Kubrick movie. Given that Kubrick is well known for insisting on dozens of takes for scenes, I’m more inclined to wonder how many spit buckets the actors needed whenever they had to film eating sequences. “My Dinner with Stanley: Kubrick, Food, and the Logic of Images” by Mervyn Nicholson, is much too heavy handed overall – almost amusingly so – but it does point out how life itself and the act of eating are inextricably interwoven in Kubrick’s films.

Given all of the above, it is certainly discouraging to discover that Kubrick’s own food tastes were screamingly generic. It is reported, for example, that throughout the filming of The Shining he lived almost exclusively on Big Macs, and his daughter noted that he enjoyed egg rolls in what seems to have been a highly forgettable Chinese-American restaurant they frequented. I am most emphatically not going to recommend either for a celebratory meal. The actual meals in Kubrick’s movies offer little help either. The generals in the chateau at the end of Paths of Glory are breakfasting on boiled eggs and croissants; the meals on arrival at the lunar colony in 2001 are either the liquid mush of actual lunar trips of the 1960s or rather ordinary, manufactured chicken sandwiches, and while Dave Bowman’s final dining scene at the end of his journey to Jupiter is set elegantly, the meal itself (not clearly visible) seems to be salad and grilled meat with a dinner roll that could be a reject from a cheap diner. I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that, while Kubrick showcased food and eating as vital to life itself, he treated food as fuel for the body rather than a delight.

Rather than recommend that you eat anything that works as fuel I have chosen a Hertfordshire recipe in honor if the fact that Kubrick lived and worked for most of his adult life at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, and is buried there along with his daughter. His widow still lives there. Hertfordshire is hardly the culinary Mecca of England, but it has numerous local recipes, mostly from the 19th century when it was a rural county rather than a dormitory for commuters to London. This is a local recipe for a cream soup of cucumber and green peas.

Hertfordshire Green Pea and Cucumber Soup

Ingredients

1 lb cucumber, seeded and diced
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 ½ pints chicken stock
1 lb fresh green peas
1 oz butter
¼ pint cream
salt and pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
fresh chives

Instructions

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion and sauté over medium heat until transparent.

Add the carrot, cucumber, and peas and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the stock and grated nutmeg to taste, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook for 30 minutes

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool enough so that you can process it. Put the soup in a blender (in batches if necessary), and process until thoroughly smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Put the blended soup and half the cream in a clean saucepan, and heat almost to boiling. Serve in deep bowls with some cream swirled into each, and garnished with chopped chives.

Nov 042017
 

On this date in 1737 the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples began performances with Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Sciro. San Carlo is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world. Nowadays the opera season runs from late January to May, with a ballet season from April to early June. The house once had a seating capacity of 3,285, but has now been reduced to 1386 seats. San Carlo became the model for numerous theaters throughout Europe. The theater was commissioned by the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples because he wanted to endow Naples with a new and larger theatre to replace the old, dilapidated, and too-small Teatro San Bartolomeo of 1621, which had served the city well, especially after Scarlatti had moved there in 1682 and had begun to make Naples one of the major opera centers in Europe.

The new opera house was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and Angelo Carasale, the former director of the San Bartolomeo. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is the oldest in the world. It was built at a cost of 75,000 ducats. The hall was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with 184 boxes, including those of proscenium, arranged in six orders, plus a royal box capable of accommodating ten people, for a total of 1,379 seats. Including standing room, the theatre could hold over 3,000 people. The fastidious composer and violinist Louis Spohr reviewed the size and acoustic properties of this opera house very thoroughly on 15 February 1817 and concluded that:

There is no better place for ballet and pantomime. Military movements of infantry and cavalry, battles, and storms at sea can be represented here without falling into the ludicrous. But for opera, itself, the house is too large. Although the singers, Signora Isabella Colbran, [Prima Donna of the Teatro San Carlo opera company and Rossini’s future wife], and the Signori Nozzari, Benedetti, etc., have very strong voices, only their highest and most stentorian tones could be heard. Any kind of tender utterance was lost.

When it was opened, the opera house was much admired for its architecture, its gold decorations, and the sumptuous blue upholstery (blue and gold being the official colors of the Bourbons), and was, at the time, the biggest opera house in the world. In 1809 Domenico Barbaia was appointed manager of the royal opera houses in Naples and remained in charge until 1841. He soon established a reputation for innovative and dazzling productions, which attracted leading singers to the opera house. On 13 February 1816 a fire broke out during a dress-rehearsal for a ballet performance and quickly spread to destroy a part of building. On the orders of Ferdinand IV, of Charles III, Barbaia was able to rebuild the opera house within ten months. It was rebuilt as a traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium with 1,444 seats, and a proscenium, 33.5m wide and 30m high. The stage was 34.5m deep.

On 12 January 1817, the rebuilt theatre was inaugurated with Johann Simon Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope. Stendhal attended the second night of the inauguration and wrote: “There is nothing in all Europe, I won’t say comparable to this theatre, but which gives the slightest idea of what it is like…, it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul…”

In 1844 the opera house was re-decorated, changing the appearance of the interior to the now-traditional red and gold. Apart from the creation of the orchestra pit, suggested by Verdi in 1872, the installation of electricity in 1890, the subsequent abolition of the central chandelier, and the construction of the new foyer and a new wing for dressing rooms, the theatre underwent no substantial changes until repair of the bombing damage in 1943.

When San Carlo was built, the Neapolitan School of opera enjoyed great success all over Europe, not only in the field of opera buffa but also in that of opera seria. Naples became the capital of European music and even foreign composers considered the performance of their compositions at the San Carlo theater as the pinnacle of their careers. Likewise, the most prominent singers performed and consolidated their fame at the San Carlo.

From 1815 to 1822, Gioachino Rossini was house composer and artistic director of the royal opera houses, including the San Carlo. During this period he wrote ten operas: Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, Bianca e Falliero, Eduardo e Cristina, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), and Zelmira (1822). After the composition of Zelmira, Rossini left Naples.

To replace Rossini, Barbaja first signed up Giovanni Pacini and then another rising star of Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti. As artistic director of the royal opera houses, Donizetti remained in Naples from 1822 until 1838, composing sixteen operas for the theatre, among which Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838) and the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), written for soprano Tacchinardi-Persiani and for tenor Duprez.

Giuseppe Verdi was also associated with the theater. In 1841, his Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio was performed there and in 1845 he wrote his first opera for the theater, Alzira; a second, Luisa Miller, followed in 1849. His third should have been Gustavo III, but the censor made such significant changes that it was never performed in that version nor under that title (until a re-created version was given in 2004). It was later performed in Rome with significant revisions to the plot and its location, while the title became Un ballo in maschera.

The unification of Italy in 1861 lead to Naples losing its status as the musical center of Italy and the home of the country’s leading opera house to La Scala as power and wealth moved northwards. By 1874 the fall in income from performances led to the closing of the opera house for a year. Its fortunes were able to recover due to the continued support in the later half of the 19th century and into the 20th century by Giacomo Puccini and other composers of verismo operas, such as Pietro Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea, who staged their works here.

In the late 19th century, the house created its own in-house orchestra under Giuseppe Martucci, which helped attract a number of respected conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Pietro Mascagni and composer Richard Strauss, whose influence expanded the opera house’s repertoire.

One performer who did not appear in Naples from 1901 onward was Naples-born Enrico Caruso, who after being booed by a section of the audience during a performance of L’elisir d’amore, vowed never to return.

Here’s a small taste:

Speaking of taste, one of the most beloved Neapolitan dishes, perhaps as part of a pre-opera dinner is spaghetti alle vongole napolitano. It’s very simple to make and is one of my favorites.  You must use very small clams, but you can use linguine in place of spaghetti.

Spaghetti Alle Vongole Napolitano

Ingredients

500 gm fresh small clams in their shells
200 gm cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
500 gm spaghetti

Instructions

Wash the clams thoroughly and keep them in salt water for half an hour before cooking.

Cook the spaghetti in abundant boiling water.  Check every few minutes once it is soft to make sure it is cooked al dente and no more.

Sauté the garlic gently over medium heat in oil in a deep skillet (with a lid) for about 2 minutes. Do not let it take on any color. Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and half of the parsley. Stir slowly and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Drain the clams and add them to the skillet. Stir and cover until the clams are open (3-4 minutes). If the sauce is too dry add a small amount of boiling water from the pasta pan.

When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, drain and put it back into the same pot. Pour over it the juices from the cooked clams.  Stir for 1 minute over low heat.

Empty the spaghetti on to a serving dish and serve with the clams and tomatoes garnished with the remaining parsley.

Serves 4