Archives for category: Reviews

Through my seemingly endless perusal of Hawaii hotels on Tripadvisor, I have noticed an alarming trend within the traveling community.  It’s a trend that may make you question a journey to the islands, or even the purpose of humanity.  What I’m talking about are people who take pictures of their feet:

Nearly every resort hotel review page on TripAdvisor is peppered with similar pictures.  The one above is from the Four Seasons on the Big Island.  As far as these pictures go it’s not terrible.  The color and composition are nice, which distracts from the feet.  The feet are okay looking–sort of well-groomed with flip-flops so the feet are not so present.  This one below (also from the Four Season’s review page) is far more typical:

Here the photographer is burdening us with an uneven, poorly lit shot…and his feet make him look like he’s a cadaver being wheeled around some tropical morgue.  Also, way too much leg…the viewer feels like they’re sitting on this dude’s lap.  Not a comfortable feeling.  The cliché continues on many other resort pages.   Here are some more corpses roasting in the sun at the Sheraton on Maui:

Also from the Sheraton page, see below. At least this person looks like they expended the energy to sit up for the shot:

This is from the Hyatt Maui page:

Also on the Hyatt page was this grossness. Feet and PDA…barf:

The below image is from the Napili Surf Resort in Maui, which apparently turns your legs into large beached fish:


From the Grand Hyatt on Kauai:


Okay, okay, why is this all so very wrong? Here are a few reasons:

1. It’s a contrived cliché

Considering the sheer amount of these types of pictures I’ve encountered, it should be pretty clear that there’s nothing original about the feet-up beach shot.  Why go through so much effort to show you’re relaxed?  Are you really that relaxed when you’re wondering how to best demonstrate your relaxation to friends and strangers back home?  This is right up there with people holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.  The picture is so staged that instead of creating envy, as it’s likely suppose to do, it forces viewers to question the taker’s insufferable lameness. Why bother?

2. TripAdvisor pictures should help others judge the hotel property

When I go through the effort of clicking through all the pictures on a TripAdvisor page, it means I want to see a hotel’s rooms, its views, its beaches and its other facilities.  I am not hunting for pictures of strangers’ feet.  Really, why post any pictures of yourself on TripAdvisor–we are strangers–we don’t really care to see your deformed body parts lounging about on the sand. If you must share such pictures, please inflict them on your Facebook friends.

3. Feet by themselves are pretty gross and weird-looking

There are few body parts that are as  unappealing as feet.  Although there are many people who love feet, there are whole cultures in which feet are offensive.  This blog is one of those cultures.


A simple organ chord opens a multi-layered journey of the self in Owen Pallett’s Heartland.  Hearthland investigates song-building and personal identity in an often strange narrative journey of a character named Lewis–it’s a journey as expansive as it is personal and told through music that is of the moment but  echoes the past.

“Midnight Directives,” begins the album with a simple organ chords, then adds slow, ascending “oohing” vocals, almost like a heavenly chorus.  Very quickly, these are taken over by the driving speed of the Pallett’s lyrics, and eventually, a frantic violin.  It’s a track that’s ambitious and energetic and matches the raw optimism of the Lewis speaker as he abandons farm and family to journey towards a different self, “a clerical life.”

Although the music in the first three tracks is interesting, “Red Sun No. 5” is an early standout. The steady beat of a synthesizer slowly paces this song, which is about a moment of personal discovery. The tone is tinged with melancholy, but also the hope of revelation. This moment of softness is later matched by the stirring “E is for Estranged,” which features mainly Pallett’s delicate vocals and whimpering violin.

These moments of pathos are balanced by the playful song-building of “Lewis Takes Action” and the poppy chorus of “Lewis Takes off His Shirt.” The former is something like a New Orleans funeral march, but bubbling over with a shimmering exuberance. Here he performs it live with full orchestration. When he performed this in Madison, he recorded a loop of each part and performed over the loops. It was impressive:

Although never directly spelled out in the lyrics, the speaker’s often anachronistic narrative feels entrenched in contemporary explorations of sexuality, gender roles and other identity struggles.  In “Red Sun No. 5”, Lewis leaves his wife for a “him” who offers “an ending” and “completion.” Later in “Tryst with Mephistopheles”, in a moment of sheer meta-self-destruction, the Lewis speaker gleefully sings about brutally murdering “Owen,” his creator, with a bouncy sing-song tone.  Hiding behind the irony of the lyric-music combination in “Mephistopheles” is a real question about the nature of creativity and what hiding behind another identity really means.

The contemporary and the past also overlap in Heartland’s music. Although the album is highly produced and layered, as with many contemporary albums (such as Arcade Fire–for whom Pallett often does string arrangements), certain songs seem built off musical styles from centuries ago. For instance in “Great Elsewhere,” Pallett begins with a few measures on the keyboard and from there he builds and sweeps. Yet, as far away as the “Great Elsewhere” appears to veer from its simple opening, underneath all is still the basic keyboard theme we first heard:

In here is a nod back to the fugue form, popular during the Baroque movement.  The key is to build different patterns off the same theme.  Bach was a true master of the form and it is often a thrill to try to track a theme underneath all of the layers he puts on top of it:

Here’s another famous fugue from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; try not to throw yourself into a pyre after this one–it’s depression for the ear:

What’s so significant about Heartland is that underneath all the layers of stuff: the unique musicality, the themes, the meta-narrative, the looping and the references–Heartland still feels incredibly personal and moving.  Pallett’s voice is flexible and clear in an age when everyone sounds manufactured.  Heartland is an album that respects the significance of the past, but looks to the future.

On my way home from Cheese Days (which I wrote about sort-of recently) I stopped by one of favorite bars: Le Tigre.  Due to its location, my lack of a car and Madison’s lack of late-night public transportation, I rarely get there.  But we had a car for Cheese Day! So we got there.  If you live in Madison, or are ever in Madison, please take the opportunity to visit Le Tigre.  It’s located in a strip mall, which, admittedly, doesn’t normally signal a great night out:

But on the inside, Le Tigre is the most glorious themed bar/lounge you will ever encounter.  Everything is decked in tiger memorabilia: Tiger rugs, tiger statues, stuffed tigers, tiger photos, tiger beer.  The bar seats are orange.

In addition to the whole tigers-wearing-WWII-veterans-caps and tigers-wearing-earmuffs thing, the bar only takes cash, always has the same one bartender (who we believe is the owner’s son), only plays music from the 50s and 60s from a jukebox and we believe certain curse words are grounds for immediate expulsion.

The drinks are good, the prices reasonable, the clientèle is generally young-ish and glad to be there (as they should be, lucky ducks!).

The strange thing about Le Tigre is that I first heard it identified as a dive bar.  Yes, it’s certainly is a unique bar, maybe a strange bar, but not a dive.  Aren’t dives there just to make one feel miserable?  What is a dive?

And with that, gentle reader, began a soul-searching journey that may also end with this post, because lord knows, I don’t have a good track record of sticking to a topics.  What are the intangible qualities about a place that make us shudder at the thought of picking someone up there?  My friends, allow me to try to make the intangible, you know, tangible.

As I begin this (perhaps one-post-long) journey, here are my thoughts as to what makes some bars dive bars and others places you take your mom after Mother’s Day brunch:

1. Atmosphere: This is a key ingredient.  Does the atmosphere seem unstylishly old-fashioned?  For instance, wood paneling? This is not necessarily a bad thing, some of our favorites (like Le Tigre) are whimsically old-fashioned, or have a certain classic classiness.  Are the walls covered mainly in signs and advertising for a certain types of beer (say Milwaukee’s Best or Keystone Light or Michelob Ultra)?

The question truly with atmosphere is–how is it all coming together?  Is the bar too spacious with lots of flooring between objects? Does that alienate you?  Does is sort of remind you of a sad dog chained up to a dilapidated house?  Are there sober people in the bar? Do they look like they’re enjoying themselves?

Another way to rule out a dive: does the bar feel homey?  Are  the owners an old couple who smile at each other, or better yet, are they a young couple and the wife is pregnant and wiping out beer glasses?  If so, that’s not a dive.  That’s an episode of EastEnders.

2. Clientèle: How old are the patrons?  This is a key question that  separates many campus bars from true dive bars.  I would argue that any bar that caters to  patrons who are mostly under thirty is not a dive.  Young people, in whatever capacity (drunk, hopeless, belligerent, unfailingly stupid) bring a certain sparkle to any misery.  For them, the future CAN change.  The next job, relationship, educational choice, or move could turn their lives around.  Even people in their thirties can, to some extent, give off this aura–but when the bar starts to fill with the grey hair and crows feet, the immediate optimism of youth evaporates and a bar can become a true dive.

Another question with clientèle: are there people on dates?  Are they sober and actually talking to one another?

3. Drinks: Here’s another big clue to whether you’re in a dive–what are you holding in your hand?  Is it a can of Keystone Light?  If so, well, I think you know where you are.  Does the bar only serve cans of terrible beers that exists only to get you drunk as cheaply as possible?  Or are there tap beers?  Are there local taps, or even microbrews on tap? Can you get mixed drinks?  Can you get cocktails?  Once you start answering yes to these questions–then you may not actually be in a dive.  Maybe you are just in a small town and in a tavern.   Those are dives.  Those are cultural. Dives are where culture ends and sadness begins.

4. Food: Is there food?  Food does not immediately rule out a dive bar experience.  But certain foods can.  For instance tapas can not be served at dive bars.  Special quality hamburgers with secret sauce (that is actually good) can not be served at dive bars.  Popcorn? Maybe.  Cheese curds?  Yes.  Gourmet cheese curds? No.  Basically the question is, would people come here for lunch to eat the food and not necessarily drink?  If yes, this is not a dive bar.

5. Loneliness/Misery: Here is the unsayable sayable.  Do you feel bad for being there?  Are there single people at the bar looking miserable? Do desperate men make terrible passes at you in a way that makes you sad for humanity.  When they smile at you, do they have all of their teeth?  Are there groups of people sitting around and not talking?  Do they look like they’re having fun, but really there’s  a deep pain behind their eyes?  Do you fear you will die in a place like this? Do you think your mother would feel sad for you if she saw you in this bar nursing a Keystone Light?  Do you stare at your can of Keystone Light and question the fundamental purpose of your existence?  Is the bright light of  your youth smothered by the garishness of neon?

If yes, Dive City.  There is a vacancy just for you.

Join me as I maybe never compend the bars I happen to stumble into.  I am lazy and I fear bars.  I like good beer.  Cheers!

It’s nearly 4 p.m. on Monday and I’m slowly emerging from my food hangover.  Please see below the good/interesting thing consumed at the second day of the Taste of Madison. Blargh:

1. Chicago stuffed pizza – Pizza Extreme, Madison

I had the spinach version of this very good cheese stuffed pizza.  This is such an indulgence, but the cheese was a nice, moderate level so it didn’t make the whole pizza a gooey mess.  The other components tasted pretty fresh and flavorful.  For a festival pizza, it’s was a nice treat.

Although I had a few other entree-type items, the remaining highlights were in the dessert category.

2. Beignet- The Bayou, Madison

These were served pipping hot.  It’s like a doughnut only slightly better.  These were nice and soft on the inside.  I think the outside is suppose to be a little more delicate and crispier or something.  But whatever, this was delicious.

3. Bananas Foster Sundae – Queen Anne’s Catering, Madison

I don’t really know how a combination of bananas, pecans, and boozy-sweet syrup could go wrong.  Really bananas foster anything, please.  Bananas foster coffee…sounds perfect for winter! Bananas foster sandwich (well…I love bananas and peanut butter and bananas and brown sugar).  Bananas foster bananas foster! Seriously…let’s make it happen. You and I.

For my second movie of my Labor Day Weekend movie marathon  I selected the  1950 Bette Davis classic, All About Eve.  Here’s what it’s about:  Theater! Aging actress. Scheming ingenue. Jealous rages.  Delicious lines.

Here’s one great scene when Bette Davis’s Margot Channing (that’s the aging actress) discovers her boyfriend chatting with the deceitful Eve (that’s the scheming ingenue).  In the moments leading up to this scene, Davis’s character had a growing sense that Eve was taking over her life for the purposes of replacing her.  If only we could all fly off the handle with this much class and intelligence:

Later, Eve worms her way into being Margot Channing’s understudy and then reading Channing’s part in her absence.  Much to Margot’s anger, she’s brilliant, which leads to this altercation with the playwright and the director of the show (who is also Margot’s boyfriend). This clip has Spanish subtitles so you can learn to eloquently put people down in Spanish!:

What was striking about this film is how much dialog there is.  Really, this is over two hours of just talking and looking.  There is virtually no action.  But the dialog.  The quick exchange.  It’s such a descendant of the screwball comedies of the 1930s where the sentence is run-through and finished off with breezy hand gesture.  It was also incredibly refreshing to have a movie where difficult plot lines resolve themselves naturally and realistically and aren’t contrived for the sake of drama.  For instance [spoiler] Eve’s failed attempt to steal Margot’s boyfriend.  He rejects her because he find’s her forwardness a turn off, he love’s Margot, and that’s that.  Most movies would have gone for the cheap drama of an exchanged kiss or someone walking in on them at an inopportune time.  Instead, the scene plays out in a way that rounds out the Bill character by making him seem reliable and independent (he does not exist solely to forward the Eve plotline) and also shows how vulnerable and desperate Eve really is.

Another great moment [spoiler] is Eve’s attempt at extorting Margot’s friend, Karen.  Eve threatens Karen by claiming she will reveal a damaging secret unless Karen ensures her a role that Margot expects to play.  Karen is clearly distraught and unsure of what to do.  When Karen returns to the table Margot announces, without knowing anything about Karen’s situation, that she no longer wants to play the role Eve was gunning for.  Karen laughs with unqualified relief.  Here a plot device that easily resolves itself through the natural course of human action.  Such a rare thing in contemporary movies.

What I took from this movie: I would gladly be in Margot Channing’s entourage.  Sure there might be some nutjob moments, but at least I would always be surrounded by a flurry of words declared in a truly mesmerizing way.

One of great things about the end-of-the-summer sloth-gluttony circuit is when my city helps me facilitate these sins.  This weekend is the Taste of Madison–which is an outdoor food festival probably similar to ones held in other cities.  Here, 75 local food vendors surround the perimeter of the State Capitol and serve up small portions of their food for under $5.

It’s generally hot and crowded and full of drunk people listening to meager live music offerings.  Yesterday was great, however, because it was nice and cool, which makes everything: crowds, greasy food, drunks, bad music all so much better.

Below are some of the favorite foods I sampled yesterday.  Sadly, this is not all I ate.

1.  Pan Fried Corn Patty – Bandung Indonesian Restaurant, Madison

Similar to the State Fair, much of what’s served at the Taste of Madison is greasy or fried or both.  There is a nice mix of local, international places and places that serve mid-range American food.  This corn patty from Bandung was the first thing I tried.  The patty itself was made up of sweet corn kernels, egg and sweet onion.  On top was a savory garlic sauce which has a little bit of kick, but was still very mild.  The patty itself was amazing.  Generally, these things are like mush patties, probably because the restaurants rely on canned corned.  This was nice and firm.  When I pulled apart the patty I could see the firm corn kernels.  The sweetness of the corn and onion was delicious against the more savory garlic sauce.  It wasn’t that greasy and the crisp lettuce on the bottom seemed to help the dish from feeling soggy.

2.  Watermelon Popsicle – Chicago-area Mexican restaurant

I didn’t quite catch the name of the Mexican-food vendor that served me this watermelon popsicle (I will try to catch it today–Blogger Purgatory for me!), but I thank him for introducing me to the joy of Mexican Popsicles.  This tasted like someone had juiced a watermelon added just a little sugar and frozen it in a popsicle mold.  It did not taste artificial at all.  So, so yummy–probably even better on a hot summer day.

2. Beer Battered Deep Fried Cheese Curds – The Old Fashioned, Madison

Over the last 5 years of so, gourmet cheese curds have become something of a Madison-area delicacy–with just about every mid-to-high range “food pub” in Madison serving its own version for upwards of $10 a basket.  Much of this craze likely traces back to the opening of the Old Fashioned.  The Old Fashioned is a “Wisconsin-themed” mid-ranged restaurant right across the street from the State Capitol.  It features an extensive Wisconsin beer menu and better-tasting versions of the greasy specialties featured in the supper clubs spread across the state.  These cheese curds are a great example.  The breading is light and crisp and the beer gives it a nice, deep flavor that compliments the cheese.  The cheese inside is flavorful (my guess is some kind of colby) but not so strong that it’s overbearing on the taste buds after a certain point (as is the case with some of the sharp cheddar cheese curds that appear in other restaurants).  The sauce is a zingy mayo/mustard/light pepper combination and it really compliments the heaviness of the cheese curds.  This is one of those dishes that makes me so, so proud that I’m from Wisconsin.  I actually eat and think to myself: “my people”.

4. Cookie Dough Egg Roll – Bluephies, Madison

Chocolate-chip cookie dough wrapped in a light egg roll shell. Deep fried. The cookie dough becomes moist and gooey and stays hot inside the crisp egg roll shell. Do I really need to explain why this is delicious?

More food coming my way today!

My Labor Day Weekend movie marathon began yesterday with Rashomon, which I had never seen and had begun to feel like I was avoiding.  After all, I had been told over and over how good it is, how it’s not one of the great films of Akira Kurosawa (this was my first Kurosawa film) and a masterpiece of film perspectives and really one of the best films of all time.  And it had been sitting for months on Netflix Instant Queue (with a suggested 4 1/2 stars).   But I finally watched it.  No more boo-hooing me, intellectual elite. And it was a very, very good film.

[Spoilers follow–Ed.] For those of you who aren’t familiar with the film, or just need a refresher, it follows the perspective of four people who were witnessed or were part of one event–the rape of a woman and the subsequent reaction of her husband, the rapist and the woman herself, and ultimately, the husband’s death.  All three people (rapist, woman, husband) provide their own perspective on the event during the court hearing for the husband’s death.  (The husband’s perspective is provided by a medium.)  The fourth and final version of the events comes from a woodcutter (also the film’s central narrator), who we find out towards the film’s end, was also a witness to the rape and murder.  All four perspectives vary widely, with all providing glimpses into how each character would like to be perceived by its audience.

When the film became most interesting to me was the story from the perspective of the woodcutter (the final perspective):

Unlike the other narrations of the event, in this perspective, all the characters act and react in unflattering ways to the events that are taking place.  The men are shaking, exhausted and awkward during their fight.  There’s stumbling and heavy panting and obvious fear.  The woman actually stands up for herself and argues with the men when they both reject her after her rape, but then she cowers in fear during the fight that she directly causes and is ultimately revolted by its result.  When the bandit/rapist actually kills the husband it more out of luck and he appears to do it with self-disgust.  This scene offers moments of realism that take the movie to a different level–we have no clear winner or hero. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters, but in their faulty humanity they are at their most sympathetic because they most resemble ourselves.

Overall, it’s a short but dense film.  The imagery of rain, light, vegetation vs. sand all adds meaning to the themes of human selfishness, violence, Japanese culture, personal faith, trust, truth, perspective, gender issues.  I know it’s a well-studied film and with reason.  This is a film that has books worth of potential explication waiting for the eager cinephile.

Although, it was a very satisfying and interesting film, I didn’t find myself as moved as I have been with other films (although an emotional reaction is not always a sign that a movie is actually good), but I think that’s by design.  In general an emotional response comes from watching some personal development within a character with whom we have become emotionally connected.  With Rashomon we can’t really invest ourselves into the characters because they change from perspective to perspective.  We stick most closely to the narrator, and his arc of understanding most closely resembles ours.  But even his reliability and moral integrity is called into question when we find out [spoiler] that he steals from the site of the rape/murder.  It’s hard to want things to happen for the characters, but for a movie about whether people can be trusted, I guess that’s sort of the point.  Perhaps the narrator is ultimately redeemed when, in the end, he offers to take care of an abandoned child.  Perhaps that is our redemption, too.

I should add, that the film is also beautifully shot.  Perhaps the best moment was the  windy wildness of the medium as she tells the dead husband’s story.  It begins around the eight minute mark of this clip:

During this segment, it’s as if we’ve entered a whole new world of spiritual heroism–only to have that world taken apart when, minutes later, the woodcutter/narrator tells his perspective and reveals that everyone’s a bunch of lying, terrified buffoons.

For anyone interested in more yammerings on Akira Kurosawa, I plan more subsequent entries.  The local university is showing several of his films this semester and it’s a good excuse for me to learn more about such an admired director.  Stay tuned.

Dear one subscriber who no longer subscribes to this blog,

I was here but then I wasn’t.  Well the week flew by.  The real reason for my few days off was that I was camping.  No Appalachian Trail euphemism, but real, in-a-green-A-Frame-tent camping: the warm lull of a campfire, being outside all the time so that doing nothing qualifies as doing “something”, the loud rush of wind through trees, the strange threat of cackling racoons, the food.  Oh lord help me, I love campfire food.  I have to; I’m a vegetarian.

The amazing secret of the classic wood-fire camp flame is that it makes fake meat taste AMAZING.  I’ve been a vegetarian nearly 10 years  and I’ve suffered through some terrible faux meats.  Many of them microwaved (which is a great way for a fledgling vegetarian diet to permanently fail). At best, the most ubiquitous tend to be merely bland seasoned protein patties that cook all dry and rubbery.  But smokey campfire crisps away the rubberyness and encourages the substitute meat to crackle on the outside and to become, dare I say it, juicy on the inside.

The following  have led to some of my best experiences:

1. Tofurky Beer Brats

In vain I had searched for some kind of veggie brat that remotely replicated some semblance of the beer brats my father made for us when I was growing up.  Beer Heritage! These on a campfire were the first thing that came close.  I have yet to actually try marinating them in beer, but the fact that they taste decent without that process makes me quite hopeful of the result.  Please do not microwave or charcoal grill these after you have had them on a campfire.  That is a foolish, cruel thing to do to yourself.

2. Field Roast Grain Meat Co. – Smoked Apple Sage Vegetarian Sausage

Although I am a happy vegetarian (meaning, I enjoy what I eat and don’t get all bitter and make others miserable as I judge their lack of food ethics) brats are my Achilles Heel…my soyfood meat-substitute Achilles Heel. In fact, before I discovered that Tofurky Beer Brats were yummy on the campfire, I was starting to allow myself one well-chosen brat a summer so that I would no longer resent all my fellow Wisconsinites for their horrible, delicious lack of food ethics.  But the campfire changed all this.  I have food summers again!

Then this past weekend I tried Field Roast vegetarian sausages on the campfire and they might be even better than the Tofurky.  The inside was flavorful without the off-mark, almost peppery spiciness that I sometimes taste with other fake meats.  But the topper was that their vegetarian sausage actually was juicy on the inside, almost succulent.   More products like these, please!

3. Morningstar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips

These are one of those vegetarian-substitute products that may bewilder newbies with their almost inedible appearance.  As my camping partner described them: play food.  But didn’t you always want to eat your toy food as a child?  Now you can.  And it  gets nice and crispy on the fire.  The flavor is salty and similar to bacon-chips.  It’s a nice finger-food to compliment coffee and eggs on a slow morning in a collapsible canvas chair.  True bacon lovers may not be satisfied with the close-but-not quite flavor, but the advantages over the real thing: less fat and no grease.

4.  MorningStar Farms Veggie Sausage  Links

Similar in quality to MorningStar’s veggie bacon, this product appropriately replicates the taste of real sausage links (perhaps a little over-spiced, but not enough to be off-putting).   The smell is pleasant to wake up to, and again, not greasy so it’s easy to tool around your campsite while munching on these.

5.  Nature’s Bakery Veggie Burgers

I couldn’t write this entry without  acknowledging Nature’s Bakery’s scrumptious veggie burgers.  Complex, moist, flavorful–these are everything one could want in a veggie burger.  These don’t make the mistake of trying to replicate a meat-hamburger, but demonstrate that the otherness of veggie alternatives can be delightful when judged on their own merits. These are probably the best packaged veggie burgers I’ve had.  Nature’s Bakery is a local coop so their products are only available in Wisconsin and a couple of select locations in Illinois and Minnesota.  But do try if you have the opportunity.

Finally, as far as campfire failures…

I finally tried vegan marshmallows over the weekend and it wasn’t quite the revelation I had hoped.  They certainly tasted like marshmallows, but had nothing of the crispy-gooey combination that makes popping roasted marshmallows off a stick such a delight.   If anyone reads this and has recommendations, I would love to hear them.  Occasional gelatin (I try to limit it) is one reason among many other aged, cheddar-flavored reasons that I could never imagine undertaking veganism.  Go ahead and judge.

Last night I met Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka–I guess revisited him for the first time since becoming an “adult.”  What a sad, strange man.  I suppose that’s the whole point.  But it was truly refreshing to see the movie again after more recently seeing the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton version in the the theaters.  Although the new version was fine and entertaining–and it was a nod to the genius of Roald Dahl that his book finally had a movie treatment that followed it more closely, which was his preference–but I didn’t love the movie.  There was no “pure imagination” moment for me–no moment of transcendent bliss as the elevator breaks through the glass ceiling.

What was interesting about this viewing is how well the movie spoke to me now as an adult.  There were certain grating moments (like every time one of the parents of the four naughty children opened their mouths) but the subtleties of the movie were also more apparent.  For instance, take the low card that is the first big musical number, “The Candy Man Can:”

I had heard this song and some parodies  many times since seeing the movie, but I didn’t really remember the actual number from the film.   That’s why it was surprising to see the slouchy Aubrey Wood version–all lurching  and smiling with his mouth (but not his eyes!).  What I expected was something much more raz-a-taz with kids tap-dancing with the candy shop owner on the counter.  Instead we have a tired, middle-aged man willing excitement after a lifetime of hard work.  It’s all so workman-like, but catchy.

The other great treat was Gene Wilder’s performance of “Pure Imagination” (follow link):

To hear this song out the scene from the movie might mean missing the layers buried beneath the schmaltz.  From the moment he begins to sing, Wilder’s Wonka stares ahead vacantly with virtually no interaction with the other characters, who demonstrate a range of emotions while experiencing the chocolate room for the first time.  The characters are initially awed by room (matching the viewers own reaction) but immediately begin to excitedly interact with the space. One could say Wonka has entered his own internal world of pure imagination–one that is freeing because it does not involve connecting with other people.  In fact, Wonka’s detachment is quite startling when juxtaposed against the rabid consumption of the others in the room, who are in fact devouring the products of Wonka’s imagination and, one could say, Wonka’s very self.

Yet, Wonka’s authority over the space is reaffirmed visually in a few key moments.  For instance he is seen “solving” the problems others have within the room–he helps both Violet and Mike TeaVee access the candy they are struggling to obtain.  He also controls the space for the viewer by surprising us with his interaction with objects: picking up a mushroom and using it as an umbrella and then pulling a tea cup from a plant to drink from and eventually eat it.  Here Wonka has authority over us because he has knowledge about the objects in the room and seems to effortlessly command them in a way that we could not do.

The mushroom umbrella and tea cup are also important because they signify a certain level of refinement, which is especially ironic giving the varying degrees of feeding-freezy taking place all around Wonka–Veruca Salt’s violent destruction of a giant ball and then her gobbling up of its innards is an especially jarring, somewhat animal-like, contrast to the neatness of her outfit.

Then there’s the whole stroking of and ripping out of Mike TeaVee’s hair.  It would be interesting to pick apart, but it’s late so let’s enjoy the strangeness for the sake of strangeness.

It is also worth noting that after all that analysis of the scene, I still love “Pure Imagination” the song for its unbridled schmaltz.  It’s this and the original theme song to Reading Rainbow and Muppet Babies and I’m in a happy space for a long, long time.  Join me: