Friday, October 30, 2009

Victor Wong

Victor Wong, an actor who starred in nearly 30 movies including John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness, was a renaissance man who only began making movies later in life.

His face, which for the latter half of his life was affected by a form of nerve paralysis, was widely recognizable for its lopsidedness, a trait that may have helped his film career but effectively ended his earlier broadcast television career.

As an obituary from 2001 in the Sacramento News & Review said:
"He was at varying stages a teenage Christian evangelist, a Protestant minister-in-training, a Buddhist, a visual artist, a poet, a Beat Generation luminary, a Merry Prankster, a pioneering photographer and broadcast journalist, a comedian, a successful stage performer, a teacher, a mentor to younger writers and filmmakers, and, in the end, possibly one of the most famous Chinese-American character actors in Hollywood."
He was born in San Francisco, the son of a poet and advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek (then Taiwan's president) in 1927. At one point he wanted to be a Baptist minister. Later, he went to UC Berkeley to study political science and journalism.

Discovering acting in college, he hooked up with the Second City Comedy Troupe and performed with actors like Alan Arkin.

While in Chicago, he went back to religion, enrolling in the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Theology and studying under Paul Tillich, Rheinhold Niebuhr and Martin Buber.

He was one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and appeared as the character Arthur Ma in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur.

In the 50s, he studied art under Mark Rothko at the San Francisco Art Institute, exhibiting his work at his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti's famous San Francisco bookstore, City Lights.

Victor Wong died on September 12, 2001 at his home in Sacramento.


Quote of the Day: Andres Duany

“When I originally thought of New Orleans, I was conditioned by the press to think of it as an extremely ill-governed city, full of ill-educated people, with a great deal of crime, a great deal of dirt, a great deal of poverty. And when I arrived, I did indeed find it to be all those things. Then one day I was walking down the street and I had this kind of brain thing, and I thought I was in Cuba. Weird! And then I realized at that moment that New Orleans was not an American city, it was a Caribbean city. Once you recalibrate, it becomes the best-governed, cleanest, most efficient, and best-educated city in the Caribbean. New Orleans is actually the Geneva of the Caribbean.”
That's Cuba-born architect Andres Duany, talking to Wayne Curtis in this month's Atlantic Monthly. The article, "Houses of the Future," gives a tour of the new affordable, compact, and high-tech homes of post-Katrina New Orleans -- starting with some built by Brad Pitt's charity.

Duany is not like the other architects who are working on homes in New Orleans. “The high design? That has nothing to do with reality,” he scoffs. “That’s just architectural self-indulgence.”

And not many of the people who have brought their expertise and money to the city know what they're doing, Duany argues:
“All the do-goody people attempting to preserve the culture are the same do-gooders who are raising the standards for the building of houses, and are the same do-gooders who are giving people partial mortgages and putting them in debt. They have such a profound misunderstanding of the culture of the Caribbean that they’re destroying it. The heart of the tragedy is that New Orleans is not being measured by Caribbean standards. It’s being measured by Minnesota standards.”
Duany is one half of Duany Plater-Zyberk, a Miami-based firm. Duany and his partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, are among the co-founders of Congress for the New Urbanism.

Duany Plater-Zyberk is most famous for designing the town of Seaside, Florida, a New Urbanist development that started in 1979. The resort town, which has narrow streets and cozy houses with porches, was featured in the 1998 movie, The Truman Show.


My Favorite Horror Movies

I'm struggling to come up with a common theme in these five films. Some of them are great because they aren't as explicit in what they show. Encounter at Raven's Gate builds tension and doesn't let us down they way War of the Worlds did when it revealed the aliens. But others, like Re-Animator, are so explicit, it's delightful. On the other hand, Prince of Darkness succeeds as a horror movie because it takes itself so seriously. Near Dark takes a tired genre and makes it new with a decidedly un-gothic setting and chracters. Phantasm is an adolescent fantasy done well. Here, just before Halloween, are five of my favorite horror movies:
1. Prince of Darkness (1987, dir. John Carpenter)

Prince of Darkness came out a year after Big Trouble in Little China and featured a couple of the same actors -- Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. The plot was clever: an obscure Catholic order of monks in Los Angeles seeks help from physicists and ancient history scholars when a dark secret that they've guarded for more than two thousand years threatens to leak. Donald Pleasance (who will be familiar to horror fans as Dr. Loomis in 1978's Halloween, also by Carpenter) plays the head priest who goes to Howard Birack (played by Wong), a professor of theoretical physics at a public university. When Birack brings his students and some other professors to study the ancient secret in the church's tombs, bad things start to happen. Look for a cameo by Alice Cooper, playing a demonically possessed homeless man.

2. Re-Animator (1985, dir. Stuart Gordon)

Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, this gorey horror movie stars Jeffrey Combs, a great character actor who has played at least three species of aliens in the Star Trek franchise. Combs is Herbert West, a medical student who studied under a controversial doctor in Switzerland doing research dead tissue. After a public disgrace involving the death (and failed but near re-animation) of his mentor, he comes to a small town medical school in New England to finish his studies. Not happy being forced to abandon his mentor's research, Herbert West starts doing experiments, and his more conventional roommate, played by Bruce Abbot, is getting worried. This movie is disgusting, offensive, and hilarious.

3. Near Dark (1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Near Dark, one of the best, most stylish and understated vampire movies ever made, stars much of the cast of the previous year's Aliens. Lance Henriksen is the patriarch of a group of nomadic Southern vampires, with Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton as his wife and son. Their younger vampire daughter, Mae, played by Jenny Wright, meets Adrian Pasdar's Caleb in small town Oklahoma one evening. When she can't bring herself to kill him, he reluctantly joins their traveling killing spree. Never is the word "vampire" mentioned in this movie, nor do we really see much in the way of fangs. These vampires are refreshingly unbound by traditional vampire lore and baggage; they are Southern white trash. Despite that characterization, director Kathryn Bigelow (who later did Point Break and Strange Days) gave Near Dark an art film sensibility, as befitted her background -- she studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Whitney Museum.

4. Phantasm (1979, dir. Don Don Coscarelli)

This low-budget classic looked much better than it should have. Special effects like shiny silver flying spheres with retractable blades and drills were apparently thrown like baseballs and then played back in reverse. The story is set in a small town (as so many are). A boy witnesses strange goings on in the local cemetary after his parents die and discovers that the undertaker (played brilliantly by an actor named Angus Scrimm) is re-animating dead people, shrinking them down to half-size, then transporting them to a red planet with higher gravity for slave labor via a portal in the funeral home. Woah.

5. Encounter at Raven's Gate (1988, dir. Rolf de Heer)

This Australian movie is, on the surface, an alien encounter story. What makes it so great (unlike the recent remake of War of the Worlds, which was fantastic up until a certain point) is that we never really see the aliens. Steven Vidler plays an ex-con who comes to work on his brother's farm in the outback. Slowly, this rural community is terrorized by strange incidents. The nature of them -- lights in the sky and power failures, for example -- is the only thing that seprates this tale from a classic ghost story. It's been years since I've seen this, but its creepiness is very memorable.
I'm looking for something great to watch on Halloween. Anyone have any suggestions? Please comment.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quote of the Day: David Carr

"It is a riddle of modern magazining that during a period when staffs are expected to file early and often to the Web to make sure that publications have a significant digital presence, all the while still making the print product, that they are now confronted by dramatic cuts in staff that raise practical issues of getting the work done."
Well said. That's David Carr, writing in the New York Times today about all the cuts Forbes is making.

In other news, the owner of a small chain of upscale men's apparel stores here in New York told me last night that his business is back. Why? Finance guys are shopping again. The pen is not mightier than the dollar.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Scenes from Movies I Can't Find on Netflix

Black Cat White Cat (Serbian, 1998, dir. Emir Kusturica)

Bleeder (Danish, 1999, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)


Jar City (Icelandic, 2006, dir. Baltasar Kormákur)

Idioterne (Danish, 1999, dir. Lars Von Trier)

Good news: West 32nd Street, a film by Michael Kang about Manhattan's Koreatown staring John Cho (of Harold and Kumar fame) and Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica), is finally coming out on DVD this month.


The Bronchitini

When confronted with a nearly empty liquor cabinet and a yearning for a cocktail, One must innovate. After a recent bout with bronchitis, I found that I had a nice stock of cherry-flavored cough syrup. A new cocktail was born.
2 ozs. gin
one-quarter tsp cough syrup
Start with a chilled martini glass. Swirl the quarter tsp of cough syrup in the glass to coat it. Shake 2 ozs of gin in a cocktail shaker with ice to cool it. Pour gin into the cough syrup-coated martini glass.

Notes: I've attempted this drink with a cough drop as a garnish, but it becomes sickly sweet. The beauty of the cough syrup is that it's sweet, but not too sweet. A tiny bit adds a bittersweet edge to the gin, and flavors it quite subtly. I used prescription cough syrup, but over-the-counter varieties would certainly work. I'd avoid children's cough syrup (too sweet). The amount of codeine in a quarter tsp of cough syrup will be negligible, so go ahead, make two.


Urinals of the World


The New Cooper Union Building


Cilantro Cocktail

This is adapted from a drink called a "Puebla" served at Applewood in Brooklyn.
2 ozs. tequila
2 quarter-inch slices of jalapeño
1 lemon
1 tsp agave nectar
lots of fresh cilantro
Pack a third of a large lowball glass full of cilantro leaves. Squeeze the juice of one lemon into the glass. Add jalapeño slices (the more seeds you leave in, the hotter). Muddle. Add tsp of agave nectar to sweeten it, then add two ozs of tequila.

Shake everything in a cocktail shaker and strain into a large lowball glass with three ice cubes and garnish with cilantro.

Notes: It's easier to muddle in a short glass, rather than a cocktail shaker. Lemons seem to work better than limes in this drink. Honey may be reasonable substitute for agave nectar, but I haven't tried it. The true amount of cilantro will vary by taste, but aim for about one loosely packed cup. Using better tequila will be rewarding.


Friday, October 02, 2009

Cilantro and its Enemies

A certain percentage of the population, it turns out, has a fierce hatred for cilantro. I had this in the back of my mind as I told a couple of friends about a delicious drink I had at a Brooklyn restaurant, a muddled cilantro and jalepeno-infused tequila concoction.

"I hate cilantro," one friend said. "Apparently I'm one of those rare people for whom cilantro tastes like bleach or dish soap."

My friend is not alone. Not even remotely. How did I not hear more about this before? (there used to be another cilantro hater's website,, but it is now a virus-generating mess -- don't go there.) has a handy "guide to cilantro-free restaurants." The blogger tries to mitigate her hatred by pointing out that she loves so many other things:
" could I or you or anyone so passionately hate something as much as cilantro without loving so much else, in fact most else, of nature's bounty, as foodies insist on calling it, or food, as I like to think of it."
People get weird about their food dislikes.

I should know: I hate cheese. I'll eat mild, tasteless mozzerella on pizza, but I'll pull it off if there's too much of it. I won't eat cheeseburgers. The smell of parmesan cheese is like an unbathed European to me. Feta smells like it sounds: like sweaty feet.

My hatred is so strong that I'm convinced there's a genetic component. I've gotten in heated arguments about this, and even ruined a relationship before it got off the ground because of it (The conversation went, "So if I had you over to my parents' house, you would refuse their food?" To which I responded, "yeah, if all they offered me was cheese." It was downhill from there.). But my brother feels the same way, so maybe it really is genetic.

Whatever it is, it's so strong in us that we characterize it as an allergy, partly because it literally makes us sick to our stomachs, partly because no one understands it or takes it seriously otherwise.

There is apparently genetic research that suggests, if I'm understanding this right, that vegetables like broccoli taste extra-bitter to some people, perhaps as an evolutionary mechanism to keep us away from compounds that would inhibit thyroid function. But there's also research that says that people who avoid bitter foods have higher risks of cancer because they aren't getting essential nutrients.

But back to cilantro. In a Wall Street Journal article from February, a cilantro hater recalls driving 20 miles to return a cilantro-tainted burrito, demanding a replacement "immediately."

Why do some people hate it so rabidly? It probably is genetic. An article on explains that some people will not smell the lemony/limey freshness, but instead detect only an unpleasant bitter, soapy smell. The rest of us don't get that at all.

There may be another component at play with people who have strong flavor dislikes. So-called "supertasters" apparently have more taste receptors than the rest of us. A New York Times article from the late 90s explains that taste researchers divide the world into three groups:
A quarter of all people tested are nontasters, half are medium tasters and a quarter are supertasters -- people who react violently to PROP [6-n-propylthiouracil]. Medium tasters say the substance is bitter, but they are less sensitive than supertasters to small concentrations. Genetically speaking, two medium taster parents can produce a supertaster or a nontaster child, or a medium taster like themselves.

In looking at people's tongues with a special blue dye, researchers have found that supertasters have as many as 1,100 taste buds per square centimeter of tongue, while nontasters have as few as 11 buds per square centimeter.
I'm clearly not a supertaster; I love bitter foods and spicy foods. The article continues,
Supertasters find many sugary foods to be sickeningly sweet. Frosting is yucky. Saccharine has a strong aftertaste. Coffee is too bitter, and alcohol too sharp. Hot peppers and ginger produce an unpleasant burn. Food should be tepid.
The website sells the PROP test for $4.95.

As we learn more about why some of us hate certain foods, will we become more tolerant of food quirks? It's hard to imagine not being chided to try stinky cheese by zealous moldy dairy lovers.

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