I’m Sick Soup

We’ve all just come down with our first colds of the season and we’re just a couple of weeks past Labor Day. It’s all due to my renewed efforts to make it to actual classes at the gym – when the childcare is crowded – rather than just doing my own (less effective) thing during the quiet mid-afternoon. So much for that. Exercise tips for someone with practically the whole gym at her disposal but no workout buddy are welcome. Cardio’s sorted but my own strength & toning workouts have nothing on Pump & Barre Dynamic classes!

Anyway, so here we all are with the sniffles and I really felt like some healthy soup for dinner but really didn’t want to go to the shops – or, in fact, anywhere at all. So after raiding my fridge and pantry, this soup was the result. It turned out remarkably well considering that I made it up on the spot with head congestion clouding my senses. Not to mention my lack of experience with fennel, an ingredient I’ve been meaning to use more of since it’s nearly always available here and those TV chefs are always going on about how great it is. Turns out it’s pretty great!

I added diced fennel bulb to the classic mirepoix in place of some of the celery and also used the fine fronds as a herb in my soup. The fennel complimented the flavours in the chorizo perfectly. It really made the soup something special, adding a freshness to balance out the richness of the chorizo and the heartiness of the lentils and brown rice.

Essentially this is a pretty healthy soup, with the chorizo being the ‘spoonful of sugar’ in this instance. The brown rice and lentils are a great combination, together providing additional complete protein. They also make it a hearty and filling meal in itself.

The chorizo I used wasn’t overly high in fat, but if yours is you can always drain off or spoon out any excess rendered oil before adding the mirepoix. But be sure to retain enough to enhance the flavour of the soup! This particular chorizo was quite spicy with black pepper and chilli flakes added along with the classic spices such as paprika. If your chorizo lacks heat and you like it hot – as I do – then add few shakes of dried chilli flakes. The heat factor is totally optional, but is great for clearing out blocked sinuses! Some also claim it boosts the metabolism. Chorizo varies a lot; mine was the fully cooked kind, which holds its shape when sliced and cooked. If your preferred chorizo is uncooked, it may not hold together well once the casings are removed, frying up more like mincemeat, but this is absolutely fine and better than having the chewy sausage casings in your soup.

I advise using low sodium broth and tomatoes because of the salt in the chorizo. You can always add more at the end if necessary, but go easy at first. I added just enough to sweat the mirepoix without it browning and didn’t need to add any more. I also advise using fresh garlic rather than the pre-crushed garlic in a tube or jar; though convenient it can be overly strong and often slightly bitter. I think it could easily overpower this soup.

You can of course cut the chicken a big bigger if you like. I tried to keep all the pieces fairly small for consistency (in both senses :-) and for quick cooking. Approximately 45 minutes simmering time over a low heat seemed to produce a good result in terms of softness and development of flavour, but you may be able to get away with as little as 30 minutes. This is meant to be a hearty soup, thick with ingredients, but if you accidentally over-reduce it, just add a little water and heat through.

Although it didn’t offer an instant miracle cure for our colds, this soup was just what I felt like; tasty, nutritious and warming. A bowl of this will definitely make you feel good inside.

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    Chicken, Chorizo, Lentil & Brown Rice Soup
    (aka ‘I’m Sick’ Soup)

Serves 6

Ingredients

• 4 Chorizo, (~340g, gluten free if required), casings removed, sliced/chopped
• 1 small chicken breast, cut into 1/2″ (1cm) cubes and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper & paprika
• 6 cups low sodium chicken broth (check for gluten free if required)
• 1 can (~400g) no-added-salt chopped tomatoes
• 1can (~400g) lentils, drained and rinsed
• 2 cups pre-cooked brown rice
• 1 red onion, 1 carrot, 1 small or 1/2 stick celery, 1 fennel bulb, all finely chopped
• fennel fronds, finely chopped
• 1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped
• 1/2 cup dry white wine
• 1tsp lemon juice (or squeeze
1/2 a lemon)
• ~3tbs Extra Virgin olive oil
• salt & pepper to taste

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Method

• Heat olive oil in a large saucepan or cast iron casserole over a med-high heat.
• Sauté chorizo until lightly browned and slightly crispy around the edges.
• Add the diced chicken and quickly seal/lightly brown.
• Using a slotted spoon or spatula, remove the meat and set aside. Lower heat to Med.
• Add diced onion, fennel, carrot & celery with a good pinch of salt (~1/2 tsp) and black pepper. Soften without browning for about 5 minutes.
• Add garlic and stir until fragrant (about 30 seconds).
• Deglaze the pan with the white wine and scrape up any remaing brown bits from sautéing the meat.
• Add the canned tomatoes with all of their juice. Half fill the empty can with water to pick up remaining tomato juices and add water to pan.
• Add the chicken broth, lemon juice, lentils, cooked brown rice and 3/4 of the fresh herbs. Stir and bring to a simmer.
• Cover, lower heat and simmer for approximately 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. The ingredients should all be well softened and the rice plumped up.
• Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, turn off heat and stir through remaining fresh herbs (or reserve for garnish if desired).
• Can also serve garnished with oven baked olive oil, salt & pepper croutons if desired.

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Memorable Meals: An Aesthetic Preoccupation with Food

Amongst those of us who have the wonderful luxury of being able to choose and enjoy what we eat, there are those who eat mostly because they have to, or to enhance health, and occasionally enjoy a favourite or comfort food and those for whom eating is often an aesthetic experience in the fullest sense. I am most definitely in the latter category!

HOW I EAT
Nigella Lawson wrote a book called ‘How to Eat’. Taking her title as inspiration, the following are little habits that allow me to obtain maximum aesthetic pleasure from food.

Though some foodies eat fast, I love to savour my food, especially a really great meal. I will try to get a little bit of each flavour, or element of the dish, that’s intended to go together into each mouthful. I also eat slowly and carefully, rather than making a complete mess out of something that is essentially an edible work of art and leaving half of it spread all over the plate. If the meal going cold or me getting full is unlikely to be an issue, I’ll also ‘save the best [mouthful] for last’. Some dinner companions find this carefully organized and very slow eating a tad painful to watch and endure, but it’s how I like to eat. If I’ve enjoyed a meal, the plate will barely need washing up!

If I’m expecting a great meal I’ll actually go somewhat hungry beforehand so that I have a good appetite and can appreciate it all the more. I’m small, so three or more courses are a stretch for me, but I think I do pretty well for my size. Anticipation can sometimes ruin an aesthetic experience, but I find that with food this only happens if either the food is a real letdown or one has insufficient appetite. I don’t often get opportunities to go to great restaurants – it’s definitely worth having a light breakfast and/or skipping lunch in order to be able to make the most of what’s on offer. And I’ll happily be rolled home afterwards :-)

I like to match good food with appropriate wines – or other drinks if that’s what’s called for – but I do love quality wine. And although it’s always good and healthy to have water handy for between courses, I think it dilutes the flavour of a good meal and is not an ideal accompaniment. I’d love to indulge in some more degustation meals with lots of small courses matched with complimentary wines. For instance, very rarely do I have the pleasure of enjoying a dessert wine, but when matched to a great dessert, this is heaven!

THE ORIGINS OF MY GASTRONOMY
Comfort Food
I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. But by and large, I find a meal more enjoyable when it’s been prepared for me. The long process of preparing a good meal actually seems to affect the palette somehow. Perhaps it’s the lengthy exposure to the aromas of the meal, or perhaps simply the effort involved. The one exception to this for me are homely comfort meals – or old family recipes – that have been perfected such that no-one else can make them quite right. Sometimes the slow preparation of such dishes becomes almost meditative and can be a great way to spend an evening, with a glass or two of wine and some music playing. Some examples of this for me are crepes, a roast dinner (the way my family always made them and including our vegetarian riceball roast alternative – a zen meal) and my Mum’s original cheese & spinach pie.

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Peek family Cheese & Spinach Pie with roast butternut pumpkin

Actually, my Gran and Mum were/are such good cooks that I think this is explains the origin of my enhanced appreciation of food. My attempts at Mum’s recipes never taste quite as good as when she makes them! And she has always made such a wide variety of wonderful meals, including using home-grown meat and dairy, creating vegetarian, macrobiotic and economical family recipes, as well as cooking favourite meals from other cuisines to perfection.

In my late teens I visited London a couple of times, staying to work as a nanny for 6 months the second time. Most of my time there was in winter, so comfort food was most enjoyable. I was also a committed vegetarian at the time and enjoyed the greater variety of vegetarian foods on offer, as well as lots of sweet treats! I still remember an amazingly delicate and creamy leek & goat’s cheese tart, made by a family friend, and some delicious cheese & onion pasties I used to buy hot from a local bakery sometimes – so warming, tasty and yummy! I also enjoyed the richest, most chocolatey hot chocolate EVER at a gorgeous little place in Cambridge and had my introduction to Haagen Dasz Belgian chocolate icecream at their Leicester Square parlour.

Back in Australia, the only thing worth eating at the university cafe were some surprisingly sophisticated mushroom, shallot & neufchâtel cheese turnovers with caraway seeds. They were so good, I would count out my pennies and get lunch as early as possible before they ran out!

The other comfort foods I’ll never forget the taste of – and sadly can’t recreate properly, especially gluten free – are my Gran’s legendary sponge cake with homemade jam and fresh Jersey cream, and her apple sponge dessert. She used a lot of farm fresh eggs in her sponges and they were always yellow, moist and fluffy.

Childhood Foodie
Ah, the food one grew up on, the dishes so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed with such pleasure week after week. Those of us who remember food this way are very, very lucky. Because my parents love good food, I was also fortunate enough to enjoy some exceptional meals out quite early on in life. Some highlights from when I was only about six or seven include regular dinners at the Good Earth Chinese restaurant in Esher, London where we always enjoyed the superb Peking Duck Banquet, including sesame prawn toast, fried seaweed and, of course, Peking duck with pancakes.

We had two summer holidays to the South of France, staying in a villa in the hills near La Garde-Freinet. One evening we drove to a nearby Bistro, where I had the most delightful meal of whole rainbow trout with frites, followed by a divine chocolate mousse; so good that I have never forgotten it after all these years. A year or two later, on a fabulous weekend trip to Paris with family and friends, I tried snails (in their shells with garlic butter) and marveled at the taste of real croissants and bread.

THE DINING EXPERIENCE
Of course, it is well acknowledged that the overall experience of a truly memorable meal can also be greatly affected by three factors external to the food itself: company, ambiance and entertainment. For example, a couple of years ago I enjoyed two separate tapas meals with old friends from home I rarely get to see lately. The first was in Melbourne at Movida Next Door, the second was in Perth at Pata Negra. (SO many great meals in Melbourne by the way; also really loved Bistrot d’Orsay!) In both instances we enjoyed fantastic food (wow, so that’s what chorizo is meant to taste like!) and my dear friends are like me in that they will order and eat a LOT of food and unlike me in that they can afford VERY fine wines. But, most importantly, they are terrific company and much loved friends and these were very special evenings I will never forget.

Family meals are also always like this for me, especially now that we all get together so rarely. A standout was a celebratory family meal at the sensational Gala Restaurant in Perth. My entree of foie gras (had to try it once) with truffle risotto was just insanely good. I also enjoyed a fabulous fish main course and an amazing dessert that looked too artistic to eat but then tasted even better. It included a creme brûlée, chocolate mousse and icecream. All courses were perfectly matched with excellent wines. This was probably my best meal out ever!

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Dessert at Gala

Of course, a romantic context can also enhance the enjoyment of a meal. Generally speaking, since my OH usually falls into the ‘eat because I have to’ category, it’s not always easy for him to match the pleasure I take in fine food and, in turn, his disinterest can negatively impact upon my experience. However, we have had some wonderful meals together that he was able to appreciate too.

While staying at the serene and beautiful Bluey’s Retreat on the NSW coast, my then fiancé and I dined at the resort’s Kingfisher Cafe. When the special was described, we both had to have it. It was a truly remarkable thrice-cooked pork belly with a sweet soy glaze that was way better and more complex than I can adequately describe. How fortunate that one of us didn’t miss out due to that silly couple’s tradition of not both ordering the same dish. I’m not sure I would have shared ;-)

When we honeymooned in Hawaii, naturally there was some great fish on offer, some American junk food and the servings were all too big, but a surprise was the number of standout dining experiences we enjoyed. In Kauai, I tried fish tacos for lunch one day; I’d never tried them before and luckily these were awesome! I often think of them and wish I could get some for lunch. In Maui we shared some wonderfully flavoursome, crunchy truffle fries and a huge pineapple creme brûlée (served in a half pineapple), both wickedly good.

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Pineapple Brûlée at the Hula Grill, Maui

At the Waikiki Sheraton’s Japanese restaurant, Yoshiya, we decided to try the Sukiyaki. It was spectacular! We had to go back and have it a second time before we left Hawaii. Everything, from the quality & quantity of ingredients to the balance of flavours in the broth and the raw egg for dipping, was delightful.

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Sukiyaki at Yoshiya, Waikiki

Entertainment is another extra that can enhance one’s gastronomic appreciation, especially when it is integrated with the meal itself rather than a distraction. For example, I have enjoyed many wonderful teppanyaki meals with my husband, family & friends. Teppanyaki, done well, is delicious, but the theatre of the performing chef and the general loud, jovial atmosphere is also so much fun … so long as you are in the mood for it. If not, best have some sake and loosen up! :-)

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The chef preparing the omelette for throwing

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My gallant husband protecting my hair with a serviette as I prepared to catch the omelette in my mouth

Ambiance is really important. A lovely view and/or location, well designed decor, appropriate music and so on, can greatly enhance one’s enjoyment of a meal. I frequented some Vietnamese restaurants when I lived in Perth that offered truly delicious food at a remarkably cheap price, but it is true that the plastic tables and fluorescent lighting (plus occasional vacuuming of the rather dingy carpet if you ate late in the evening) didn’t exactly make it a memorable occasion or make you want to stay awhile. On the other hand, the most spectacular outlook cannot make up for bad food. Furthermore, there is much more to ambiance than a good view; many restaurants with enviable locations would do well to bear this in mind. I will also add good service, so often neglected in Australia (perhaps because we don’t tip), as crucial to the overall ambiance. I really noticed a whole other level of service in Hawaii, even compared with our best restaurants, and it certainly enhanced the dining experience.

Dietary Restrictions & the Gourmand
In recent years I gave up being vegetarian, after discovering I was seriously gluten intolerant. Giving up gluten entirely was a big challenge, especially if you look at my earlier list of comfort foods. Going without meat and fish as well as gluten made eating out and cooking for two impossible, so I embraced meat and fish again. You would think that having big restrictions on what you can eat would ruin the experience of dining out, and sometimes it does; for instance, when places serve battered chips. This is a pet hate of mine because it rules out the only tasty starch I can eat at most places! Plus I’m a chip lover! My favourite are the golden crunchy chips at the Belgian Bier Cafe!

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Grilled garlic mussels with fries and mayonnaise at the Belgian Bier Cafe, The Rocks, Sydney

Despite the difficulties of dining vegetarian for twelve years and now gluten free since 2005, I’ve still had many memorable dining experiences, where everything has come together perfectly.

If one is inclined to a truly aesthetic appreciation of food, as I am, the memory of a great meal will stay with one forever. All the meals and dishes I’ve mentioned, and many more, are great memories and when I think of them I can almost taste the more familiar meals, those I’ve eaten many times. The one-offs are memories of such ecstatic pleasure that I can only hope will one day be repeated. Bon appetite!!!

Prometheus Bashing & New Frontiers in Sci-fi

It’s a few weeks since I saw (and enjoyed) Prometheus. Normally, if I was going to review a film, I’d do so quite quickly having had the opportunity to see it early, but in this case I really needed some time to mull over the film. Besides, this really isn’t a review at all, more a discussion of the general trend of existing reviews and Prometheus’ ambitious attempt to broach one of life’s big questions: how did we get here?

Plot Problems
Reviews have been mixed, but there has been an awful lot of ‘Prometheus bashing’ going on; a lot of disappointed Ridley Scott fans who’d gone in with very high expectations. Take this, from a review by Ben Peek (no relation) as an example:

“The problems of your film [Ridley Scott] are many: your characterisation is flawed, your science is bad, your internal plot mechanics make no sense, and there is absolutely no sense of pace or tension within the film at all. In truth – and I won’t lie here – your film is completely and utterly unredeemable, from start to finish…”(http://benpeek.livejournal.com/874712.html?view=6869720).

The negativity of this review is not uncommon amongst those I’ve read and, although I don’t find this level of disappointment surprising, for reasons I will discuss later, I do think it is a little unfair. Of course, many reviews also focus on unfavourable comparisons with Alien and Blade Runner; such comparisons are inevitable.

Certainly, there are points at which Prometheus suffers from internal confusion and disorganization. In fact, I agree with many of the specifics of what Ben Peek has said in his review; similar things irritated me. For example, it annoyed me when Shaw leapt off the automatic-operating table after major abdominal surgery and, apart from a few staggers and occasional stomach clutching, proceeds to run and jump around like someone with fully intact abdominal musculature. I guess it is supposed to be a very advanced operating table, but still…

Likewise, I’m always frustrated when people do dumb things in movies, such as remove their protective headgear, bring alien specimens on board for closer examination, touch things that look menacing and, well, like they shouldn’t be touched, or go off alone in dark, narrow confines in search of the alien responsible for killing teammates. But this is part and parcel of the genre and as true of Alien as it is of Prometheus. These plot devices are required to build tension, apprehension and fear in the audience.

I certainly agree that Elizabeth Shaw’s creationist views do not sit well within this particular plot and the theme of ‘where we came from’ is rather confused and underdeveloped within the film. Clearly, unanswered questions create room for another film in which perhaps this theme is to be further developed. It’s an ambitious theme though, since an attempt to resolve it one way or the other will likely result in half the audience finding themselves alienated (no pun intended) and unwilling to suspend disbelief any further.

Comparisons & Philosophies
Philosophical themes dealing with ethical issues, such as how we should treat clones, ‘replicants’, robots and alien life forms are, in some respects, easier to address in film than those that deal with questions about the origin of life or how we got here. Blade Runner addresses the former so successfully and with such exquisite sensitivity, that Prometheus’ attempt at the latter does seem clumsy and incomplete by comparison. But it should be remembered when making such comparisons that, within the sci-fi genre, these films aim at a different kind of audience response and broach different types of questions about life. Blade Runner explicitly deals with the concept of what it means to be human (in relevant experiential and ethical respects), while Prometheus sets out to explore possible origins of humanity – a much more ambitious undertaking. Alien does not attempt any big philosophical questions. There is no more than some brief disagreement and debate over how quarantine issues should be dealt with (though certainly this is more elegantly done than the sudden appearance of an overacting Charlize Theron with a flame thrower in Prometheus). I guess we will see if subsequent films in this franchise are able to do anything interesting with the creationism vs Darwinism subtext. If, across subsequent film(s) Scott can navigate this tricky territory with the kind of delicate artistry shown in Blade Runner, then hats off to him, but I suspect, for the reasons given above, that this may be over ambitious and, with Prometheus, he is not off to a good start from the perspective of philosophical interest.

So, with respect to comparisons, it’s certainly true that Prometheus doesn’t have the beauty and depth of Blade Runner, but perhaps we shouldn’t make this comparison if the films have different agendas, as indeed Blade Runner and Alien do. Scott has a varied filmmaking background, which includes films as diverse as Gladiator and A Good Year (incidentally, I love the latter, a very sweet film). Not all of his efforts are noteworthy and it would be of little value to compare certain Scott films with others in very different genres. It must be difficult to have produced such good work thirty years ago that all subsequent efforts, especially those in related genres, are held up against it. Ultimately, I don’t think comparisons with Blade Runner are entirely fair to Prometheus but, given that both films are within the sci-fi genre, Scott does invite comparisons by attempting to address big philosophical questions in Prometheus and failing to do so with the sophistication shown in Blade Runner.

Comparisons with Alien are entirely warranted of course, with most making the claim that Alien is a much ‘tighter’, more coherent film. In most respects, however, I think Prometheus stands up quite well as a prequel to Alien. Alien also has certain (albeit minor) flaws, moments of confusion, things left unexplained (how could there not be!) and obvious ‘surprises’ we all saw coming: we knew certain characters were creeping towards their death, we knew the alien was going to turn up on the escape vessel, etc. However, I suggest that we have all became so familiar with the film that it’s coherence has appeared to increase over time.

But surely we would have noticed any such problems when we first saw the film, as many have with Prometheus? Not necessarily. I think the impact of Alien at the time it was released should be borne in mind. It was a time when sci-fi, space travel & aliens were the new frontier in film and tv and no-one had ever seen, and most never imagined, anything like what they were seeing on screen before. This kind of impact can be so absorbing that minor flaws are easily ignored. Prometheus, as a prequel working with the same concepts we’ve now seen for decades, could never have this same impact on audiences familiar with the past thirty-something years of film in this genre. Really, what were people expecting?

Prequels & New Frontiers in Science Fiction Film
As Star Wars fans know only too well – prequels made after we have grown up with the originals are highly problematic. For one thing, we miss the likes of Harrison Ford or Sigourney Weaver. True, Prometheus has some excellent performances from fine actors (the Star Wars prequels had some fine actors, but perhaps not such good performances). In Prometheus, Rapace and Fassbender are excellent; Rapace’s character, Shaw, is meant to represent humanity (apparently we’re quite irrational), while Fassbender as David is the robotic foil, lacking human characteristics such as empathy and compassion. The fact that the other characters are less well rounded is relatively unimportant, since we know most, if not all, will die anyway. What I do think is often missing from modern films is the kind of slightly cynical, somewhat worn down by life, flawed in all too human ways with room to grow and improve as people, characters that Ford and Weaver are so good at playing. A chain smoking Sigourney Weaver saved Avatar by being the only recognizable human being. Harrison Ford’s ability to play realistically flawed but ultimately compassionate characters with a cynical dry humour (Star Wars) or jaded loneliness (Blade Runner), provided a critical foil for the pure idealists, evil zealots and non-humans in these films. Many more recent sci-fi films lack this realistic portrayal of human nature. In Prometheus, Rapace as Shaw is supposed to represent [pure/the best of?] humanity. But apart from her irrational attempts to reconcile her religious beliefs with her scientific background and findings and her distress over her infertility, Shaw lacks those human flaws we can really relate to. She’s just a bit too idealistic, too brave, too physically fit and strong in the wake of major surgery to be entirely believable. We need a character we can relate to to take us into the unfamiliar frontiers of science fiction; to help us suspend our disbelief so that we might imagine ourselves there. I wasn’t able to fully suspend disbelief in Prometheus and fully engage in its imaginary world.

However, it isn’t all bad news by any means. Prometheus isn’t all obvious computer generated effects. Though, for me, it doesn’t quite reach some of the moments of beauty from the aforementioned earlier sci-fi films, it is visually impressive and the effects are wonderful. Prometheus was engrossing, captivating even, in parts. I disagree with critics who’ve said that the film lacks dramatic tension or pace; it held my interest very well and it was only afterwards that many of the flaws occurred to me.

It’s a great pity about the flaws, but I feel that too many viewers went in expecting something groundbreaking. I’m not sure that this is a reasonable expectation for a prequel. For groundbreaking we need a new concept, such as those that characterized the sci-fi films we still so dearly love from the late 70s/early 80s (perhaps the heyday of science fiction film?). Watching Blade Runner, or the original Star Wars films now, one wonders: ‘Where’s the skyway’? ‘Why aren’t we planet-hopping yet?’ ‘Dude, where’s my spaceship? … It’s 2012!’ I can’t help wondering if to some extent we’ve stopped believing in the amazing visions of the future that filmmakers, authors and audiences were imagining thirty-odd years ago, because they don’t seem to be materializing. In fact, while certain technologies, largely those in communications, are advancing beyond what we might have foreseen, others relating to space travel, genetic engineering and robotics, seem to be moving at snail’s pace. Have we given up on them a bit? I think we have and that this is reflected in sci-fi film. Where are the new imaginary concepts, technologies, frontiers & landscapes that blew our minds in the late 70s-early 80s? It’s a shame that fine filmmakers are spending time and money making prequels that are no better – arguably, in some cases worse – than the originals, rather than exploring new frontiers, concepts and imaginary worlds. It’s especially sad that the likely reason for this is nothing more than guaranteed profit margins.

Prometheus is a good film. I enjoyed it and will watch it again. But I sense that a generation or two of sci-fi fans are hanging out for something groundbreaking; something to make us feel the way we felt growing up watching the original Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, etc. We’re waiting for a new vision of the future. Prometheus isn’t it. As a prequel, it was never going to be.

Still Puzzling Over Inception?

Last night we watched Inception again and afterwards I jotted down these rough and rambling thoughts inspired by my continued attempts to figure out the ending one way or another. I change my mind every time I watch it!

Inception provides an interesting twist on the ‘brains in vats’ movies, such as the Matrix series (ie, how do you know you are not a brain in a vat right now?). Like such films, Inception also deals with classic metaphysical questions about appearance vs reality and how we can know the difference. Working with a sophisticated, futuristic interpretation of Descartes’ classic skeptical question – How do you know you aren’t dreaming right now? – the imaginary world of Inception presents us with a complex series of interwoven experiences representing both appearance and, we assume, reality.

As the film progresses, the narrative develops in such a way as to make the viewer increasingly unsure of whether certain moments are reality or dream states. The ambiguous ending is very clever; this is what keeps viewers coming back to the film. Does Cobb make it back to ‘reality’ – if indeed that’s where he was in the first place – or is he stuck indefinitely in some deep level of a ‘dream inside a dream’? Viewers have gone over the clues with a fine-tooth comb trying to come up with a definitive answer … because this curiosity, this desire to know the truth of the matter is natural to us. It matters to most of us to know that we are living in reality, and not a construct of mere ‘appearances’. Besides, we all love a good puzzle.

I think that whether you are happy to say that a film like Inception is ‘open to interpretation’ and leave it there, or whether you keep watching and searching for clues, says a lot about you, whether you have an inquiring mind and how much faith you have in the notion that there are objective truths ‘out there’ to be discovered; that is, although we don’t have all the answers about ourselves and the universe, there is an objective fact of the matter, independent of us and whether we yet have the mental faculties or technology to see or prove it.

But, even if this is your world view (it is mine), in the realm of fiction we really can have inconclusive states of affairs, possibly making the continued puzzling over what really happened to Cobb in the end quite pointless (though no less enjoyable). If the artist who created a particular imaginary world does not intend to answer certain questions raised within the narrative – What happens to x? Did x wake up or are they still dreaming? Is this reality or just the appearance of reality? etc. – then can there ever be any ‘correct’ answer to that question? In other words, suppose the creative minds behind Inception don’t themselves ‘know’ whether Cobb ends up in reality or a dream, they fully intended to leave the ending truly open; does it then make any sense for others to ‘solve’ the mystery?

This is related to an important question raised in Philosophy of Art: once in the public domain, is a work of art independent from the artist; does it now have a life of its own? Should the ‘correct’ interpretation of the work accord with the artist’s intention (whether or not we know what that intention was) or is any plausible interpretation, so long as it is supported by the internal features of the work, equally capable of being the best or ‘correct’ interpretation? It seems odd to say that, for example, the correct interpretation of Inception’s ending could ever be different from what the filmmaker intended. But it is of course always possible that in intending to leave an ending open to interpretation, a filmmaker might still have inserted clues into the narrative – perhaps some of them inadvertent – as to whether Cobb has made it back to reality or not. An interpretation of the film might be perfectly coherent and consistent with everything the audience sees, yet not be what the filmmaker intended. But I do think that when looking for ‘clues’ to support such an interpretation, we may be in danger of reading more into a film than is really there.

I am not sure what the filmmaker’s intentions were in the case of Inception. It doesn’t really matter in terms of my enjoyment of the film. What I do think is wonderful about the ambiguous ending is that it drives home just how difficult those metaphysical questions regarding appearance and reality are. If the plot had been neatly and definitively wrapped up one way or another, the audience would be less inclined to think any further about these matters.

Beauty & Women of Substance

    Julia’s Hair, Hillary’s Glasses & Gina’s Extra Pounds

The topic of societal pressures on women to look a certain way is not exactly unexamined. But although feminists began writing about this decades ago, and I blogged about it myself five years ago, it doesn’t seem to me that much progress has been made. Take some recent issues that have arisen in the media. Our prime minister, Julia Gillard’s personal appearance, her hair in particular, has been the consistent focus of public comment and attempts at humour. A “news” story recently reported that – horror! – Hillary Clinton had appeared in public without makeup and wearing her glasses. How dare she! How can we take the woman seriously now? Finally, a panel program has today been criticized for harshly deriding the appearance of the ‘richest woman in the world’, Gina Rinehart, but they were hardly alone. Ever since Gina was announced the richest woman in the world about a week ago, her appearance has been under constant scrutiny with people saying if they were that rich they would hire a personal trainer, etc. Does anyone care about her obscene wealth and whether she makes any attempt to use it as a force for good in the world? Why are we talking about the woman’s weight? Observations like these are just never made about men with similar public profiles (let alone it being the focus of numerous news stories and public comment), but it’s all too often the first and the dominant topic of discussion with respect to women.

    Inner Beauty, Substance & The Prettiest Girl in the Room

This worrying attitude towards female public figures is of course mirrored in the lives and experience of all women. We are judged on our appearance in a way that men generally are not, except perhaps in certain, limited circles. This, sadly, is constantly reinforced in multifarious ways by the media and it’s impact on women is reflected in the many touching comments other women have made to me over the years betraying their insecurities about their appearance and whether they are attractive to potential or current partners. Very rarely, by comparison, do women confide of feeling badly about themselves because they aren’t clever enough, funny enough, good conversationalists or good at their jobs. The vast majority of women’s insecurities are of the ‘I’m not pretty enough’ variety: ‘I need to lose weight’, ‘My skin’s bad – I need a facial/more makeup’, ‘I need to work out for a flatter stomach/tighter bum/toned legs’, ‘I need to spend my entire fortnight’s salary on a pair of boots I can hardly walk in because they make me look hotter’, ‘I had a baby and need a tummy tuck’, etc. And by the way, I’m not at all judging women for feeling these insecurities; the pressures on us are enormous and these attitudes have become so endemic that women ourselves are among the worst perpetrators of them.

It isn’t just the media that reinforces these attitudes either. At social gatherings, men will very often gravitate around the young, single and most attractive women (and act like idiots to get their attention), sometimes apparently forgetting all about their partners, who might cheerfully chat to the other women, but sad sideways glances betray that inside they feel hurt, and probably worse about themselves. It has happened to me and I have watched it happen to others on many occasions. (Thankfully, my OH doesn’t do this to me!) A single incident like this can trigger a diet, a clothes shopping spree or a radical new do to try and recapture the lost attention of one’s distracted partner. Much less often does it inspire a new course of study, a trip abroad, perfecting a new skill or working harder for a pay rise or promotion (something men will often focus on if their self-esteem takes a beating).

A long time ago when I was young and silly, I met a lovely, highly intelligent woman who I assessed early in our acquaintance as ‘not very attractive’. I wondered why she didn’t lose some weight, do something with her hair, wear some makeup, etc. (Yes, we women are equally to blame in judging others on their appearance.) One day, however, she was discussing something she was passionate about and was joking and laughing – her face was lit up with humour, kindness and intelligence and she was beautiful. Not just in that moment, but – for me – from then on. Unfortunately, this ‘inner beauty’ idea is one that society pays little more than lip service to. In fact, the assumption seems to work the other way – that the most attractive woman will also be the most interesting to talk to, the best company, etc.

    Motherhood, Appearance & Self-Esteem

I recently had a baby and I don’t know if this is a common experience or not, but since giving birth I have never felt less beautiful, or so unattractive. I have come to the conclusion that this must be largely due to society’s widespread assumption that women become less attractive once they have children (unless they are a freak like Miranda Kerr, or rich, live in Hollywood and have good surgeons). I say this because, objectively, I’ve actually been pretty lucky – I think a naked photo taken now, compared with one taken pre-pregnancy would be almost indistinguishable (sorry if tmi, it’s just to make the point). But this does not seem to alter the fact that I feel vastly different about myself. And this, even though I see other mothers as beautiful, stretch marks, c-section scars, flabby tummies and all, because I do think these are badges of honor in much the same way as a battle scar.

Of course there are other factors at work in how I feel about myself. First, I don’t yet feel quite myself – not as strong or fit – and tired a lot of the time. Though I’ve healed well, the memory of feeling like a wreck right after childbirth is still with me (although, importantly, I also felt triumphant). A tiny baby is so exquisitely beautiful and perfect that they do make one feel, by comparison, one’s own age and imperfection. Finally, my self-confidence has fallen in a bit of a hole; I seem suddenly (it began during pregnancy and has peaked post-childbrith) to have become the least interesting person to talk to in the room, except to those who are also Mums or themselves having babies. Perhaps people mistakenly believe that I only want to talk about babies (I’m dying to talk about other things!) or they are put off by the baby distracting me mid-sentence, or they think that my brain has turned to mush from hormones or the pressures of labour. Who knows … Strange and confusing how such a momentous and life changing event that calls upon and develops multiple character traits, such as courage, strength, patience, care & compassion, should somehow make me less interesting company. Of course this has dented my self-confidence too and, for women conditioned according to our societal norms, self-esteem and how we feel about our physical appearance and our attractiveness to others are more intimately connected than they should be. Just as criticism of our appearance can enormously (and disproportionately) dent our self-esteem, low self-esteem can also be manifested in a feeling of being unattractive or even, in some cases, obsessing over perceived physical flaws.

    Living a Full, Interesting & Dignified Life

All that being said, I do think that there’s a certain extent to which our self respect is appropriately reflected in the care we take in our health and appearance. I’m interested in fashion and get pleasure out of selecting outfits for various occasions and doing my face and hair. I’m not anti any of these things, but feel that they should be taken much more lightly when compared with the more important facets of a woman. Not only does our society’s focus on women’s appearance (together with idealizing youth) make it difficult to grow old gracefully, it’s also been taken to such an extreme that it now undermines women’s ability to live a full and interesting life with dignity, including being wives, professionals, intellectuals, mothers and having wide and varied experiences, some of which might involve physical risk, etc. Those life experiences are not only what makes life worth living, but also what makes someone truly interesting and deeply beautiful; those are the things that make one a woman of substance. I’m a lover of beauty wherever I find it, but when it comes to human beings, and women in particular, we certainly need to greatly revise our more superficial assumptions and expectations. For real this time.

Local Aussie Movies

Last Monday night we were given free tickets to attend an advance screening of The Loved Ones, the first feature film by Australian short film director, Sean Byrne. This horror genre film was touted by EFX Magazine as “Pretty in Pink Meets Wolf Creek”; as such, it didn’t sound like my usual fare. However, I was keen to attend this screening at Event Cinemas Indooroopilly, as director Sean Byrne and star Robin McLeavy were in attendance for a Q&A session following the screening of the film.

While driving his father along a deserted country road one day, Brent (Xavier Samuel) swerves to avoid a zombie-like naked youth standing in the middle of the road. His father dies in the accident. Six months later, Brent is healing his emotional wounds, with the help of girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine), when his odd classmate Lola (Robin McLeavy) asks him to the school dance. When Brent refuses, explaining that he’s going with Holly, Lola plans an intricate revenge …

As mentioned, this is a genre film and one that according to Sean Byrne counts Carrie among its main influences. The performances are wonderful; the cast are talented and fearless. But this is not a film for the sqeamish! As Sean Byrne explained in the fascinating Q&A session, he aimed to push the audience to the brink, admitting he wanted the audience to be on the verge of walking out at one point! And he succeeding in pushing the envelope; many scenes are of sufficient gruesomeness to be difficult to watch. Yet the film is enjoyable in its cathartic, demented, genre-soaked violence.

The production values were above expectation. The cinematography, soundtrack and setting enhance the menacing mood, while the script exhibits both touching emotional depth and an edgy humor. The Loved Ones manages to give us something original while still satisfying the genre conventions. This is definitely no B-grade effort, but an effective and enjoyable contribution to the genre from a promising young director and cast.

I rate The Loved Ones ✭✭✭✰

At the screening of The Loved Ones we received a ‘showbag’ in which we found a DVD of another recent Australian film, the psychological drama Last Train To Freo. This extremely intense film tells the real time story of five people in a carriage on the last train from Midland to Fremantle, in Perth, Western Australia, on a night when the guards are on strike.

“The Tall Thug” (Steve Le Marquand) and mate Trev (Tom Budge) board the empty carriage in Midland. The two ex-cons seem to be looking for trouble and when an attractive young law student, Lisa (Gigi Edgley), boards the train the two men begin to compete to both charm and intimidate the unusually brave lone female traveller, who is apparently unaware of the guards’ strike. As Lisa tries to fend off the unwelcome attentions of the two ‘thugs’ during the trip, two further passengers, an older woman and a man, also board the train. The relief when these two passengers board soon evaporates as further tensions, as well as odd and unexpected alliances, emerge.

The script, expanded from a successful stage play by Reg Cribb, is excellent and thought provoking, as film scripts that begin as stage plays tend to be (Six Degrees of Separation being an exemplary case in point). For me, the sharp, well-written dialogue, combined with excellent performances from all five actors, made for a compelling film. Marquand and Edgley are wonderful. As a former Perth local who caught the Fremantle train on many occasions, the film also had a familiar appeal.

Unfortunately the lack of action proved too much for my husband and he did not buy into the tension as I did. This is one of those films that does not have universal appeal. In spite of it going above and beyond in performances and script, it does not maximize the full potential of the medium of film. For this reason, those such as myself who love dialogue and plot driven drama will enjoy this immensely, while those who are looking for action and screen-specific effects may find this dull and disappointing.

As much as I enjoyed this, I have to admit that I could have been watching a filmed stage play. Perhaps this is also true of the aforementioned Six Degrees of Separation. How serious a fault is this in a film I wonder?

I rate Last Train To Freo ✭✭✭✭. However, given his description, I think my husband would give it ✭.

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