The Culture Edit: February Newsletter

Left: Tracking down the classic cars of vintage ski, inspired by Meredith Erickson’s Alpine travelogue. Zürs, Austria, 1953.
Photo by Hans Truöl | Right: “The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since. Home.” Julie Andrews, Home:
A Memoir of My Early Years

 
 
It still happens. From time to time I come across a film that stops me in my tracks. It even felt like a small victory, because it happened right after I had tried to watch Lupin, the series everybody seems to be talking about. Here I was again, falling in the trap of trusting the general opinion. For the millionth time, general opinion simply doesn’t cut it for me. But I couldn’t help trying to figure out just what is it that grabbed the interest of so many. And then it dawned on me. Quick entertainment. A rather interesting plot, a few thrilling elements and the relief of having all explained to you at the end of each episode. Because the audience of our times must be entertained in small doses, at all times, and the attention span must be kept to a minimum. No waiting, no anticipation. There must remain no room for open interpretation, every idea must be dwindled without much thought, individuality must be blurred. Was it the year that was 2020 that did it alone? Not likely, we’ve had it long coming, but it was certainly the year that did us all, and the film industry, in. Here we are at a moment in history where screens are placed in front of us, from the youngest to the oldest generations, as pacifiers, revolutionaries, entertainers, educators and everything in between.

So.

This film.

The film that saved my night (I wish I could say the film that saved the world from itself): Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), 1973.

A glamorous cocktail party, circa the 1970s. The camera slowly glides past men and women jumping into the indoor swimming pool. Others stand at the bar in elegant evening attire. In the background, men with hats, with the air of secret agents, are watching. The camera stops on a good-looking man in a tuxedo. And only when we see him do we realize that something is slightly off with the rest of the party guests. People act strangely rigid, the facial expressions are minimal, their movements seem slightly mechanical, the language somewhat controlled and stiff. The man in the tuxedo is Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) and he is the most humane of the people there. He is a scientist. He helped develop the Simulacron computer system, a simulation model of the real world, on the basis of which one hopes to gain information about future economic and political developments, to learn consumer habits decades from now. Since the mysterious death of his predecessor, Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), who shortly before his death spoke of having uncovered a terrible truth, he has been the new head of the Institute for Future Research.

Stiller starts doubting that his world is the real one – does he also perceive what is in fact his imaginary world as if it were the real one? Or is he delusional? 25 years before The Matrix, Rainer Werner Fassbinder made Welt am Draht. What Fassbinder’s film brilliantly does is that it denies the viewer the show elements that are usually present in American sci-fi films. The simulated reality could very well be the present day of the 1970s and the alienation theme is more disquieting than any artificially-looking futuristic setting. And the ones populating this world, whether it’s real or virtual, seem to be mere images of themselves caught in their own contained universe. Is it real? Is it simulated? Almost half a century later, this sounds frightfully familiar. How frightening is it that we let it happen?
 

Left: Photo by Classiq Journal | Right: Meredith Erickson shares the Kaiserschmarrn chopped pancake recipe on The Taste Edit.

 
 
The Classiq Journal newsletter goes out the first Sunday of each month. It’s a culture trip.

Reading

Books
The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait*, by Blake Bailey. I only found out about this book after I had learned about Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth coming out this spring. The Splendid Things We Planned is a darkly humorous and witty account (the humour comes just at the right time, the wit helps you read between the lines) of a family in ruins that seamlessly becomes more and more harrowing as you turn the pages. It’s a moving, profound and painful examination of a dysfunctional family and of Blake’s deeply troubled brother, Scott. As it approaches the end, you feel how the story suddenly gropes you with a finality you yet knew it couldn’t be helped.

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, by Julie Andrews
I am taking my time reading this. Some people have a gift for storytelling and it seems so natural that Julie Andrews is an established children’s books author. I would love to hear this book read by Julie, because it is so elegantly written, so finely tuned with that great sense of British humour, so unsentimentally punctuated with frankness, qualities that have always defined my image of Julie Andrews, that the only thing that seems to be missing is that unique voice.
 
 

”A lot of my life happened in great, wonderful bursts of
good fortune, and then I would race to be worthy of it.”

Julie Andrews

 
 
Online
Alicia Kennedy is a food and drink writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and her newsletter, sent out every Monday, takes the form of essays that reach out to much wider issues, from food labor, to politics and climate change. Paid subscribers can participate in Wednesday discussions and receive Alicia’s interviews on Fridays.

The interview
Let me just say this: Tell me about any film featuring Bryan Cranston and I will watch it just because of him. There are very few tv series I have watched in the last years, especially in the last year (wildly surprising, I know, but I am a cinema goer and if I can’t have that (while I am waiting for and saying to myself that this is the moment for the movie theater to reinvent itself), at least I owe the movies the much more intentional deed of choosing what movie to watch from my shelves, hovering over its cover art and then putting it in the player instead of clicking on Netflix), but I will surely watch Your Honor, the miniseries where Bryan Cranston plays a judge who grapples with his own principles after his own son is involved in a hit and run. Until then, I loved reading Bryan Cranston reminiscing about his life-defining motorcycle trips through America.
 
 

Left: “Bird on a Wire”, Nadya Zim photographic print available in original landscape size in the shop
Right: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, The Criterion Collection

 
 
Viewing

A Simple Plan, 1998, directed by Sam Raimi
A great snow neo-noir, a masterfully built story of greed, guilt, decaying human behaviour and mounting tragedy presented through two of those great character arch developments, those of Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, in two formidable performances.

Incendies, 2010, directed by Dennis Villeneuve
Born a Christian, Nawal (Lubna Azabal, who makes such an incredibly visceral role) fell in love with a Muslim. What ensues is a family quest narrative that takes place between Montreal and an unnamed country that’s likely to be Lebanon. The culminating point is so devastatingly shocking that makes you question so many things, from religion, to nationality, racism, cruelty, hatred and love.

Mr. Klein, 1976, directed by Joseph Losey
There is something of Jef Costello in Robert Klein. In his sharp suits, double-breasted tailored coats, pristine fedoras, carefully slipped-on leather gloves and calculated mannerisms, there is not much the perfectly groomed and perfectly dressed Mr. Klein leaves to chance in Joseph Losey’s film. But on a closer look, Alain Delon’s Mr. Klein’s identity is an illusion.

Night Train (Pociag), 1959, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz
A noirish psychological story that reveals a microcosm of human experiences. In fact, the confined setting, an element of suspense and the fact that all the stories unfolding have as common denominator some aspect of love unequivocally reminded me of Hitchcock’s purely cinematic Rear Window. I wrote at length about it earlier this week.

The Ascent, 1977, directed by Larisa Shepitko
There are few world cinemas capable of transmitting such depth of human emotion on screen the way the Russian cinema does. During World War 2, two Russian partisans set out to find provisions for their starving outfit in a snowed-in Nazi-occupied Belorussia. They are captured by the enemy and forced the ordeal of deciding if they want to live or die. We don’t see bombs going off or soldiers blown to pieces or concentration camps, and yet this is one of the most powerful movies about the atrocities of war, where everything seems to happen in the close-ups of the characters’ faces. Who was that said that “the human face is the subject of the cinema?”
 
 

“My experience went through the early 60s, where boys wore short hair and this new thing called rock and roll came in, and boy, I remember everybody on the block when the Beatles came to America, and we bought albums and we would
get together and put a stack of records on and whenever someone had enough
money to buy an album, we all went over to their house to listen to it. We’d study
the art on the cover of an album and we’d study the liner notes and we knew the lyrics, because the lyric sheets were involved in it. So, you dove into it.

I think, these days there are so many more distractions going on that it’s
harder to dive in past the headlines. I think we live in a headline world now
and that’s unfortunate because you don’t get the whole story behind it.”

Bryan Cranston

 
 
Listening

Music
The Remote Part, Idlewild. Fleetwood Mac. On vinyl, if possible.

Podcasts
Whetstone is a magazine dedicated to food origins and food culture. Their podcast, Point of Origin, is about deepening the public’s understanding by going to the source, to every corner of the world, to explore where the things we eat and drink come from. More and more people are opening their eyes to labour related issues that are so clearly connected to food and the conversation is finally starting to shift and start at the root of the food chain, at the farmer, grower or migrant worker.

Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing, still one of my favourite podcasts, is usually mentioned in My Regulars (see further down this newsletter), but I wanted to highlight this episode with Stanley Tucci, which ran last year, because Stanley Tucci has a book, Taste: My Life through Food, that will come out this year. In it, the actor and avid cook will “share my experiences and love of all things culinary.” On Here’s the Thing, Alec Baldwin talks to Stanley Tucci about movies, food, and life in London. Alec has also recently talked to Mick Fleetwood, the drummer and a founding member of Fleetwood Mac, a conversation I also recommend – so many words of wisdom, about friendship, a parent’s faith in his child, music. I loved the Fleetwood Mac stories from Sound City, too.

Making

Every month I highlight one lifestyle/design brand that I believe in 100%. Taylor Foster is a mother, a baker, a model and the maker of an organic beauty line, Heaven on Main Street. She makes everything by hand in Bovina, NY, where she grows or forages plants from her land and infuses them into formulas. Living the simple, slow-paced country life has never looked so good, free and happy.

Exploring

In the Alps and Meters Journal, Meredith Erickson shares her love for the Alps and food. I believe her book, Alpine Cooking, which came out last year, might be just the right escape for the time being. It’s a cookbook and travelogue showcasing the regional cuisines of the Alps, including 80 recipes for the elegant and rustic dishes served in the chalets and mountain huts situated among the alpine peaks of Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and France. And I finally have a reason not to feel guilty about the fact that the early afternoon is the time of day when it is impossible for me to be any productive whatsoever: “The fact that my mind doesn’t work from 3-4 pm, I try to just choose something to tackle”.

Libraries. Who doesn’t want to get lost in there? Especially that they have the Accidentally Wes Anderson stamp of approval.

The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good.

Craig Mod’s newsletters, Roden and Ridgeline.
Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews.
Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman.
Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin.
Monocle magazine, in print.
 
 

 
 
*Note: For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the books recommended here, I have linked to the respective publishing house or author. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore I will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.

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