Thursday, December 26, 2013

Some Thoughts About "Seven" (AKA "Se7en")

     This isn’t one of my usual horror movie/book reviews, as the 1995 movie “Seven” was by no stretch of the imagination underrated.  It was an excellent, horrifying film, and it justly received much attention and acclaim.  But, I recently watched it again, as it was a birthday present, and I was struck by a few things that I’d like to discuss.
     (SPOILERS AHEAD)  To give a bare bones synopsis, “Seven” chiefly involves William Somerset (played by Morgan Freeman), a detective who’s planning on retiring in a week, and David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young detective who has recently transferred to the (unnamed) city at his request.  We also meet Mill’s pretty wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s unhappy with the move to the city, and is also newly pregnant.  A series of murders occurs, and a pattern emerges—the killer is dispatching people guilty of the seven deadly sins.  Unexpectedly, the murderer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), abruptly surrenders after five slayings.  As per his demands, Mills and Somerset accompany Doe to an isolated location, where the final two murders are revealed.  Doe has killed Tracy, and mailed her severed head in a box to the location.  Mills, with Doe’s urging, wreaks revenge on Doe and shoots him dead.
     I’ve noticed this before, but I thought more about it during this particular viewing—John Doe does rather a sloppy job achieving his life’s work.  (By the way, don’t take this as criticism of the movie or the screenwriter—as I said, I loved the movie, and I realize these “errors” were surely due to story telling or cinematic reasons.  This is just a horror geek picking at minutia in something he’s enjoyed, and watched somewhat obsessively.)  I realize he’s a religious zealot and insane, so it’s probably a mistake to use logic, but still.  To review, here are details on the seven murders.

1)      Unnamed obese man.  Doe punishes this man for his sin of gluttony by forcing him to eat until his stomach explodes.
2)      Eli Gould, prominent defense attorney.  John punishes Gould for his greed by forcing him to cut a pound of his flesh off himself, resulting in Gould bleeding to death.
3)      Theodore Allen, alias “Victor.”  Sloth—Victor is tied to a bed for a year, fed intravenously, and given the minimum of medical care to keep him (barely) alive.
4)      Unnamed prostitute.  Lust—an unnamed massage parlor customer is forced at gunpoint to have sex with the woman using a bladed pseudo dildo, which kills her.
5)      Unnamed woman.  John cuts up the face of a pretty woman, then bandages the wounds, so she can survive.  He then glues a phone in one hand, and a bottle of sleeping pills in the other.  The prideful woman chooses to kill herself rather than live with her looks disfigured.
6)      Tracy Mills.  John visits the Mills home and “tries to play house,” as he’s envious of David’s simple, but happy life.  It fails, of course, so Doe kills Tracy and arranges for her head to be mailed.
7)      John Doe.  Upon learning that Doe killed his wife (and unborn child), Mills succumbs to his wrath and shoots John dead.

     First off, John Doe is unusual for a movie killer in that he doesn’t directly kill most of his victims.  Not to absolve him—clearly he’s still responsible, but I wonder if the distinction is meaningful to him, by giving his victims, to varying degrees, a choice.  Technically he only personally kills Tracy.  Also, and here was a unique(?) plot twist in a horror/thriller—the crazed killer turns himself in to the police.
     Anyway, Victims 1, 2, and 5 actually make sense—in each case the person is “guilty” of the ascribed sin, and is forced into a scenario that uses the sin ironically in their death.  2’s method is a bit symbolic, (a pound of flesh for greed), but it seems to fit reasonably in the ideals Doe holds.  And in murders 2 and 5 both victims have a degree of control in the matter—Gould could have possibly survived if he’d been a better home surgeon, and the prideful woman could have easily lived (albeit at a huge cosmetic cost)
     The others, though, are fairly problematic.  Take Victim 3, Victor (who incidentally isn’t seen to die—he’s horrifically weak, insane, and presumably at death’s door, but still technically alive).  We’re told that after a strict religious upbringing he embarked on a life of crime, including drug dealing, armed robberies, assaults, and an attempted rape of a minor.  Serious sins, no doubt (the worst of all the victims, save Doe), but how do they fit sloth?  Even if the definition of sloth is widened to include indifference, or unwillingness to act and care, it doesn’t really work.  If Victor was truly slothful, his victims probably wouldn’t have been attacked.  Victor’s sins were clearly better defined as lust (the rape), greed (making money illegally) or wrath (assaulting people, robbing them with weapons).  He was only “lazy” or “indifferent” or “slothful” when Doe forced him to be so.
     Victim 4 isn’t “fair,” either.  While peoples’ reasons for becoming a prostitute vary, I’m guessing in the vast majority of cases they don’t do so for lustful reasons.  If they were, why charge money?  Just have sex with anyone you can, like a typical sex addict.  You could make a much better case that the customer exhibited lust, not the doomed prostitute.  True, the reluctant killer in this case is clearly severely traumatized, but he’s not killed or even physically harmed.  Here John Doe seems like a stereotypical sexist guy—blaming the hooker for the sin of “improper” sex while ignoring the customer.  With no demand for this business service, there isn’t supply, after all.
     It just gets less accurate from here.  Envy and wrath are accounted for, but in convoluted, “incorrect” ways.  Doe is guilty of envy, and is killed for it.  But everything else is “off.”  David Mills is also clearly traumatized (perhaps permanently?), but he’s physically alive and well.  He didn’t pay the ultimate price for his “sin” of wrath.  But the huge problem is this—why did Tracy get killed?  She doesn’t exhibit or demonstrate any of the deadly sins.  Even John Doe himself, Mr. Intolerant and Critical, doesn’t note any.  He murdered her, in cold blood, because he was envious of David and couldn’t have her.  Kind of like the fourth murder, Doe confused the victim/victimizer ratio, and essentially blamed Tracy for the “sin” of being desirable.
     I know, I know, it’s just a movie.  But hey, sometimes I have an abundance of free time.  And to reiterate, I’m not criticizing the story—it worked very well, and I thoroughly and repeatedly enjoyed the film.  I’m just noting the inconsistencies of the messed up, psychotic character within the film.
     Another thing I’ve noticed in later viewings is the cast.  Two of the supporting actors I now associate with later sitcom roles.  For example, the small role of Dr. O’Neill (his biggest moment is at the pride murder scene) is played by Peter Crombie.  But to fans of the great sitcom “Seinfeld,” he’ll forever be recognized as “Crazy” Joe Davola, the acquaintance of Jerry’s who believes that Jerry ruined his television show chances, and who subsequently threatens Jerry (once while dressed up as a clown).  And then there’s California, the head of the SWAT team in the movie.  He’s played by John C. McGinley.  McGinley has had a long movie and TV career, including roles in “Platoon,” “Office Space,” and “Identity,” but to me he’ll always be most associated with the “Dr. Cox” character he played on the sitcom, “Scrubs.”  He even gives his trademark Dr. Cox whistle at one point—I almost expected him to call a sensitive male character by a girl’s name, as he did many times to the “Dr. Dorian” character on the show.
     Two other supporting characters caught my eye as well.  Richard Roundtree also has had a long career, but he’s easily best known for playing “John Shaft” in the “Shaft” movies.  How ironic to see that in the movie “Seven” he’s working as The Man (he’s the district attorney).  Finally, the guy who plays the massage parlor booth attendant, Michael Massee, is associated with a real life, tragic death.  Massee was the person who actually shot Brandon Lee for a scene in “The Crow,” that resulted in Lee’s death.  This wasn’t Massee’s fault at all (the special effects crew handled the blanks in the prop gun in a negligent, irresponsible manner), but still, it’s clearly traumatized him, and it adds a bizarre layer to “Seven.”
     A few other cameo tidbits—Charles Dutton (“Roc,” “Alien 3”, "Rudy") has a tiny role in the film—he’s the cop who keeps the press at bay during the greed crime scene.  (Dutton also served time in real life for manslaughter.)  Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker is the corpse of gluttony.  And Morgan Freeman’s son Alfonse plays a fingerprint technician.  And finally—evidently R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe was considered for the role of John Doe.
     Also, I was interested to learn that an alternate ending (planned, but not filmed) of “Seven” had Somerset shooting Doe before Mills could.  On this, then, Somerset realized that his career and life were nearly over (or much more than Mill’s, anyway) and so his punishment would be less damaging.  Additionally, it wouldn’t be what John Doe had set up and wanted, so in that way it would “beat” him.
     In closing, in case you were wondering, there are holy, opposite equivalents to the seven deadly sins—the seven virtues.  These are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.  Maybe there’ll be a sequel to “Seven” where a Satanic character kills people who exhibit these virtues, in ironic ways.  I wish I could say that this is an unrealistic joke, but given Hollywood’s propensity to remake/sequel-ize any movie of note (especially horror/thrillers) that’s probably a possibility.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Intestines

     Intestines, it’s safe to say, certainly fit the bill of being considered “disgusting” to eat by many people.  Not unreasonably, either—they are organs, first off, and to make matters worse they contain nasty substances.  Partially digested food.  Kind of post-vomit, pre-feces.  Who’s hungry?
     But despite these drawbacks, intestines are actually a fairly common food.  Most European nations have a history of consuming them, as do several East Asian countries, like the Philippines and Korea.  Here in the U.S. they’re most associated with the Southern, “soul food” tradition.
     There are, obviously, two types of intestines—large and small.  Food-wise, though, we’re basically only dealing with the small—I couldn’t find any references to people eating the larger kind (at least not happily, or commonly).  Pig is the most common source, but sheep (especially in Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans) and cow are sometimes utilized as well.
     About a year ago, I visited a huge, kind of sketchy, flea market in Delaware (see January 20th, 2013 post about pig’s ears for more information).  At the same butcher shop that sold the ears I also saw chitlins for sale (“chitlins” and “chitterlings” are the names for pig small intestines, especially in the soul food tradition).  Alas, the smallest portion sold was a five pound mass.  I wasn’t quite willing to make such a relatively large monetary, freezer space, and preparation time investment, so I reluctantly abstained.
     However, I then learned that I’d already had intestines years before.  At a Mexican restaurant in Iowa, I had “tacos de tripa,” which I thought meant tripe, or stomach lining.  I’ve had tripe many times since (see July 3rd, 2012 post about tripe), and usually liked it, as the Mexican style stew with hominy (“Menudo”), or in a tomato-based sauce in an Italian restaurant.  But it turns out that despite the closeness of the name, “tripa” is not tripe, but small intestine.  And I can tell you it was terrible.  It was like eating rubber—unpleasantly chewy, and what little taste it had was nasty.  Definitely a one time only, failed experiment.
     Furthermore, I’ve almost certainly had intestines as casing for some hot dogs and sausages.  Modern hot dogs, especially, usually use another casing source, like cellulose, collagen, or even a type of plastic (yum!), but traditional, (and usually pricier) butchers and stores still use the real intestines.  I like hot dogs, and really like sausage, so in that sense I could say I’ve enjoyed intestines.  But, let’s face it, I think the charm of hot dogs and sausage comes more from the spiced meat inside, and not the outer casing.  If I removed the inner stuffing from the natural casing, I doubt I’d be that impressed.
     Like some other digestive-associated organs, intestines are notorious for having a strong, foul odor when they’re cooking.  Traditional chitlin recipes advise tossing in an onion while they boil or stew, to cut the stench a bit.  (This seems like a weird strategy to me—like covering over a terrible song by playing another bad song, but, in the chef’s defense, it apparently works.)  Also, there are health concerns.  Intestines that haven’t been thoroughly cleaned, or cooked adequately can spread e. coli, salmonella, and other potent pathogens.
     So, to sum up, I’m willing to give certain forms of intestines another fair shake.  I’ll give chitlins a try if I see them on a menu, or more reluctantly, I’ll cook them if the portion circumstances are more reasonable.  But I have to say that I’m not optimistic that I’ll like them.
     Finally, author/historian/restaurateur Shauna Anderson is known as “The Queen of Chitlins,” but as far as I can tell other ranks are still up for grabs.  So enthusiasts can maybe reach that dream goal.  “Count of Chitlins” or “Duchess of Chitlins” would certainly jazz up a business card, or an epitaph. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Several Seaweeds

     As has happened before, readers in many parts of the world will find the topic of this post decidedly un-exotic.  This is one of those topics where I’m showing my patriotism, in a way, as many (most?) Americans probably find the thought of eating seaweed strange and unpalatable.  I know, because I used to be one of them.  If you’d told me as a child that one day I’d happily consume the nasty looking trash that collected around my ankles when I swam in the ocean, I wouldn’t have believed you.  But I grew up, my palate become more adventurous, and here we are.
     I was surprised to read that seaweed, at least the kind that humans eat, despite its name, isn’t a plant at all—it’s various forms of algae.  Most of the edible varieties are the oceanic, salt water species, rather than the freshwater ones.  And, as I mentioned, seaweed is commonly eaten in many parts of the world.  Many people know that East Asian nations enjoy it—China, Korea, and Japan most notably, but Northeast North American and Northwestern European countries do too, such as Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Iceland, Ireland, Wales, parts of England, parts of France, and Norway.
     Nutritionally seaweed acquits itself well, too.  There are some differences depending on the type, but most contain significant amounts of potassium, iron, and “B” vitamins.  Also, seaweed is an excellent source of iodine.  In many areas of the world, this isn’t a big deal, as salt is often iodized, but in places where it isn’t, seaweed could help keep those pesky goiters in check.
     Even folks who avoid eating seaweed dishes have probably had some, anyway.  Because carrageenan, alginate, and agar, with their gel-like properties, are common food additives, and are made from species of seaweed.  (Irish Moss, mentioned in my April 20, 2013 blog post about Jamaican soft drinks, is too.)  Pill capsules and toothpaste are often composed of these as well.
     As far as intentionally eating known seaweed, I started when I began eating sushi.  Both regular rolls and hand rolls usually are encased in a type of seaweed, called nori.  To me it’s a great wrap—it doesn’t overpower the roll innards (usually a type of raw seafood), but compliments it nicely, along with the vinegary rice.  Also in the Japanese restaurants I’ve had what’s called “seaweed salad,” which is composed entirely of seaweed, and no lettuce or anything.  This is very tasty too—the seaweed pieces are again, vinegary, and have a cool firm and chewy texture.  Some parts even pop in your mouth.  I would tell you what kind of seaweed is in the salad, but I couldn’t find out.  Every source I looked at said the salad is made from several different kinds of seaweed, but they couldn’t agree on what these were.  Wakame is one all listed, but after that there were several possibilities, including kombu, agar, and akamodoki.  Incidentally, I learned that actress Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless,” “The Crush,” a bunch of early 1990’s Aerosmith videos, the really crappy Batman movie with George Clooney) wrote a vegetarian cookbook (“The Kind Diet”) and is apparently a major fan of seaweed salad.  Finally, several websites pointed out that seaweed salad isn’t served in Japan.  Rather it’s only an invention for Japanese restaurants based in the U.S.  Our gain, in my opinion.
     The final seaweed type I’ll discuss is dulse, or Palmaria palmate, for those interested in the scientific name.  The sample I bought was harvested in Maine, which fits in with seaweed’s Northeast North America fanbase.  It was billed as a “sea vegetable,” which admittedly sounds classier than a sea “weed.”  Its serving directions were extensive.  Among the recommendations were to serve it raw (in salads or as a snack), soaked in water (for sandwiches), and roasted or fried (as “chips,” a stir fry complement, as parts of soups, or as an additive to pasta, pizza, and popcorn).  Or, to save time, the package basically said you could serve it any way, with anything.  It won’t surprise regular readers to hear that I tried the dulse plain.  The only “preparation” I did was soaking some pieces in water.  Dulse looks weird—it’s an unappetizing brownish color.  Anyway, I very much enjoyed it.  It was chewy, and slightly salty.  Enough to give it a nice “zing” but not overly so, lychee nut-style.  I preferred it dry, but the water-rinsed pieces tasted pretty much the same.  And I could see it being a worthy part of other dishes.  Although, for those on a budget, it was expensive—about $9 for a two ounce serving.
     So all in all, whether it’s a sushi wrap, beverage, salad, or plain snack, I’ve yet to taste a seaweed I didn’t like.  My advice is to get it if you can.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Moxie

     I’d heard the term “moxie” before, albeit often in older television shows and movies (i.e. a person with a lot of spirit or courage might be described as, “having moxie.”), but I didn’t realize until I started traveling and working in New England that it was a beverage, too.  Specifically a soft drink, or a “soda” to portions of the U.S.  I assumed that the drink had taken its name from the expression.  I quickly heard it was an acquired taste, that it had a “love it or hate it” reputation, and apparently only crusty New Englanders really appreciated it, and that’s why I found it there. 
     Well, it turns out, I had it completely wrong.  Moxie was the beverage first, and the expression came from it.  This is referred to as a “neologism,” with other examples being “Catch 22” (from the Joseph Heller novel), “Orwellian” (from the author George Orwell (a pen name, incidentally, his real name was Eric Blair)), and “sadistic” (from the Marquis De Sade).
     Moxie is a relatively old soda—it was developed in 1876, by a Dr. Augustin Thompson, who was born in Maine, but invented the drink in Lowell, Massachusetts.  He claimed to have named it after his friend Lt. Moxie, who had discovered the beverage’s secret flavoring ingredient on an arduous trek in some primeval part of South America.  Although it turns out that the proud and daring lieutenant is as real as the World War II spy H.E. Rasske from the Brass Monkey ad campaign (see November 7th, 2012 post for more information), or, in other words, completely made up.  This wasn’t the only ridiculous thing about Moxie though—it was initially called “Moxie Nerve Food,” and was said to combat “paralysis, brain softening, nervousness, and insomnia.”  After a few years Thompson added soda water to it, and stopped with the absurd health claims, and thereafter Moxie was just billed as a refreshing drink.
     Since Moxie has had its ups and downs.  Reportedly U.S. President Calvin Coolidge was an admitted fan, and Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams shilled for it during his playing career.  The humor periodical Mad Magazine (of which I was quite fond of as a boy) did unpaid endorsements for it by putting the drink in the background of some of their drawings in the 1960’s.  But, its popularity has been on the wane, and in the present day it’s almost totally a New England phenomenon.  I also learned it’s bottled and sold in parts of Pennsylvania, but on my fairly frequent excursions in The Keystone State I’ve never seen it.  It’s most popular in and associated with the state of Maine—there’s a museum devoted to it in Union, Maine, and an annual Moxie festival in Lisbon Falls, Maine.
     Anyway, as I’m currently in northern Vermont, I gave it a try.  Its color is dark brown, or like Coke, Pepsi, Royal Crown (RC) cola, etc.  As for the taste I found it fairly unpleasant.  It’s like weak root beer which is somehow bitter in an off-putting way.  It’s not the worst beverage I’ve had, but it’s far from good, or even average.  I drank about twelve ounces of it, and if all goes to plan that will be the last Moxie I ever have.  Although, I have to give Moxie credit for not being a run of the mill, sweet and inoffensive quaff.  It took guts, I guess, to market an admittedly bitter-ish soft drink, and obviously enough folks have enjoyed it to keep Moxie in business for nearly 140 years.  Its tagline on the bottle is “Distinctively Different,” and that’s entirely fair.  But, in my opinion, it’s not an enjoyable beverage at all.
     In case anyone’s wondering, the “secret ingredient” of Moxie has long been known, and it’s gentian root extract.  Furthermore, Moxie contains caffeine, meaning its original ludicrous claim to offset nervousness and insomnia is especially invalid now.