Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A film which has as its content the plight of a much loved animal, the seeming villain a black religious group and the seeming heroes a few white men has, at the outset, many pitfalls. And that it has these pitfalls is good and right. If such features of a film did not instantaneously present problems for it, we would still be living in the dark ages. So, perhaps, in a sense, such a film is guilty until proven innocent.

Films about much loved animals which are on the brink of extinction or are being cruelly treated generally evokes in me a sense of trepidation. My trepidation is due to the high possibility of the film being sentimental. Even without trying to be sentimental, stories about the plight of an animal, particularly a beautiful mammal like a leopard, are in danger of being so. Therefore, unless some sort of effort has been made to avoid this in a film, it is bound to fail on this score. ‘To Skin a Cat’ remains sensitive to the plight of the leopard without once resorting to oversimplified appeals to blind bias and uncritical sentiment from its viewer. It does this by its use of facts; facts about the animals, facts about the people, facts about the dilemma.

The fact that the skins of leopards have been an important part of the ritual activities of the Shembe people is not a situation which should be commented on in a simple manner. History has too many stories like these, spanning too many different groups of people, for the matter to elicit easy commentary. This makes one of the primary acts of heroism in the making of this film the ongoing attention given to the complexity of the situation. Another such heroic act being the indubitably humane response of many Shembe devotees to the plight of the leopard.

But instead of over stating the obvious in the script, and then hoping that the resultant platitudes will convince the viewer, the film shows the story of a rather eccentric, and definitely extreme, pursuit of a ‘true’ faux fur. This quest, spanning many years, takes a conservationist and graphic designer all the way to China. Never before has thread count, exact shades of brown and yellow, subtle variation in sets of man-made spots and the size of a repeated pattern counted for so much. Never have lives depended on these things. Never has a membrane made of some artificial fibre become a spokesperson of such importance; a mediator between people and a champion for a wild animal.

‘To Skin a Cat’ must have been a difficult film to make. The social terrain is treacherous. But it has trod gently, lain low and pounced quickly and true. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Staying on.

Less than two months into the life of The Glenwood Restaurant (and less than four years into the life of The Glenwood Bakery) it is high time to look at the nature of what makes for very old, near historic, eating places. You may laugh, dear Patron, but a wise and charming little blonde girl once said to her bitter and twisted, wine swilling father, who was sneering at a building of 100 years being called ‘old’: ‘Buildings first have to be a 100 years old to get to a 1000’.

But this missive is not about buildings. It is about establishments. In particular eating establishments. Places where people have chosen to eat and drink for, sometimes, more than a hundred years. Checchino dal 1887, in Rome is one. El-Fishawi in Cairo, a café more than 250 years old, is another. The Russian Tea Room, in New York, now 89 years old, has never been a place which bows to the pressures of the New York reverie of haute design. Its focus is elsewhere.

Even though visceral atmosphere and visual aesthetics are extremely important for enduring patronage and, consequently, longevity, the eating and drinking places which live for a very long time are hardly ever trend oracles. Trend oracles, even when extremely beautiful and elegant, if also faddish, are expected to be fast paced and ever changing. They themselves create such expectations. After all, the people who are expected to love them are similarly fast changing; wall paper might be the final word on decorating this season, but it could also be the death of a restaurateur the next. Such eating houses’ lives are accelerated and their deaths always imminent. This, of course, has a beauty of its own. But the truly creative genius of, for instance, elBulli and others like it, in both food and restaurant design, is not sustainable.

Sukiyabashi Jiro, still in its first generation, is patently not about faddish trend. If it ceases to exist it will not be because sushi is out of fashion or because people have become aesthetically inured to its interior. It will not be because what it costs to make even Jiro’s sushi is financial lunacy. And this is because Jiro’s sushi is made by a small group of people who do so with near monastic dedication. The luxury experienced is contained in the freshness of the fish and silkiness of the rice, the skill of the knife work and the delicacy of the pickles. For the cooks at Jiro, feeding people is about incremental steps towards perfection, in a very narrow and very old tradition. If Sukiyabashi Jiro ceases to exist it will be because the people who work there have decided to extinguish it. And this, ironically, is a credit to its patrons; people who understand fully what it takes to labour at that sort of food, and who will continue to eat there whilst someone is willing to do that sort of work.

It would, however, be a mistake to read this letter as a dismissal of haute design. This it is, by no means. There can be no greater disciples of the pursuit of beauty; higher, faddish and other. Nor is the claim that all old eating places produce excellent food. This is simply an attempt to isolate what it is that hardly ever enables the longevity of eating places; it is certainly not novel concepts, food wise, nor slavish reverie of transient visual aesthetics.