Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's become of the Jewish deli?

Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man, opening Friday at The Maple Theater, is the film parallel to author David Sax’s 2009 book Save the Deli, an ode to the culinary gift that diasporic Jews have bestowed upon North America. But the film, like the book’s obvious title, is bittersweet (excuse the pun) because the Jewish delicatessen long ago started a major decline. Whereas in the 1930s there were more than 1500 kosher delis in New York’s five boroughs now there might be 200 authentic such delis across the entire USA. What happened? The movie suggests suburbanization usurped the countless neighborhood Manhattan delis for a few large ones at Long Island shopping plazas. Dennis Howard of New York’s Carnegie Deli points to “city agencies, city ordinances, unions.” And one gleans that running a deli isn’t for the faint of heart - the long hours, low margins, and the increasing cost of foodstuffs - means younger generations simply don’t want the toil and trouble. Yet other commercial ethnic cuisines not only are stable but have flourished for diners who thrill to the ever increasing diversity of foods from different nations and cultures. Why Jewish cuisine has declined so remarkably isn’t fully explained. But what Deli Man, a generally enjoyable film,  does do well is celebrate those delis that continue to thrive, from Ben’s Best and 2nd Avenue in New York to Nate ‘n Al and Canter’s in Los Angeles, and several geographically in between. Along the way we get pithy and usually fun-filled dissertations from a host of deli aficionados and experts - from comedians and commentators like Jerry Stiller and Larry King to the learned legalist and retired Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.  Commenting on the Carnegie portions, comedian Freddie Roman says, “You have to go for a jaw adjustment after eating the sandwich.” The documentary is centred on David “Ziggy” Gruber (above left), perhaps the most exemplary younger purveyor of kosher food whose goal is to keep the deli tradition alive, including the preparation of many niche Eastern European dishes seldom found anywhere else. “When I cook I feel my ancestors around…you can taste the diaspora,” he says. The movie abounds with scenes of the fast paced kitchens and spirited bustle of the typical deli, from brusque but endearing staff (“even if you’ve never been there before they’re going to talk to you like you have” says author Michael Wex) to the linking of this early “fast food” to delis' traditional place in the community. “We’re part of the life cycle,” says Ben’ Best’s Jay Parker about his special orders. “If it’s a Bris (circumcision) you call us…and we do Shiva (mourning) work too.”  What’s lacking in the movie - and it’s a big lack - is any mention of what many contend are the best deli sandwiches anywhere - those found in Montreal. Only one Canadian deli - Toronto’s Caplansky’s - is featured. But Montreal holds a hallowed pace in North American Jewish culture and food, notably in the iconic smoked meat sandwich exemplified by Schwartz’s delicatessen, which differs from the ubiquitous American pastrami. The fact that it was omitted is really something to kvetch about.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film clips

I attended the fanciest cinema I’ve ever been in last night. It was the Villagio Cinemas in North Tampa, Fla. You walk into the place and it looks like the square of a Mediterranean village. In fact it seems a faux of a faux. The downtown Tampa Theatre, a legendary 1920s building from the heyday of great theatres, is the only theatre of its era I’ve seen with a painstaking recreation of a village - again of the Mediterranean variety - with towering plaster walls set in low light to capture a twilight scene. But the Villagio almost looks more like a restaurant with its bar and rows of dining tables. The theatres themselves seem an afterthought, off to the sides. But what theatres they are. Every seat is like a lush leather Laz-E-Boy reclining and with foot rests. Each comes with a tray, and you can order your meal and drinks with staff delivering to your numbered seat even during the film.

The reason for my attendance? To take in Félix and Meira (Maxime Giroux, 2014), on the schedule of the 19th annual Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival ( Ironically, the film is set in the dead of a cold Montreal winter. And it was in the mid-80s yesterday here in Tampa. That being said the film, nuanced and beautifully shot in muted tones, is the story of a young Hasidic mother (Hadas Yaron as Meira) in Montreal’s Orthodox community who is rebelling against the strictures of her religion. Félix (Martin Dubreuil) is not of the community but lives in the same Mile End neighbourhood and the two often pass each other on the street. Félix is recovering from his father’s death. They strike up a friendship which leads to romance. It’s all well and good but the film doesn’t sufficiently demonstrate why the two are attracted to one another but simply outlines the allure. And I couldn’t believe it when I heard the opening guitar notes of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, a Montreal cliché if ever there was one. The film, nonethlesss, won Best Canadian Feature at last year’s TIFF.

This was the only film I attended at the TBJJF festival but it made me think of a number of events recently that are bothering from a general arts perspective. The problem: virtually everybody in attendance was an insider - they were all from the same community. There were hardly anyone else and this in a major metropolitan area. On a couple of other occasions recently it was the same. Last weekend I attended a contemporary dance performance in St. Petersburg in a fantastic small arts space and gallery. About 25 people attended and they all seemed to know the performer personally. And in a classically influenced new music performance at a funky arts space in St. Pete’s warehouse district last month, three-quarters of those attending seemed to know one another. It’s like all these niche arts performances serve one community and one community only. The public at large is nowhere to be found. Even arts aficionados who may attend other independent films, dance and classical recitals, would be scarce at these events.

Finally back home very late I switched on TCM and caught only part of William Wyler’s 1937 Dead End starring Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrae. Fascinating on two counts. First in an exploration of gentrification decades before the term came into parlance. Second it appears to be shot in and around the same area where Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan’s iconic scene of Allen and Diane Keaton are sitting on a park bench with the 59th St. Bridge in the background. The location: Sutton Square at the end of 58th St. Sure enough Dead End was filmed in and around the area. Says Wikipedia: “The actual Dead End was the corner of East 53rd Street and the East River. Sutton Place South runs north from East 53rd Street at that corner...the pier and tenements are gone and the Dead End is now part of Sutton Place Park.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Postmodern vampires

Vampires are just like you and me. They have their share of hang ups, insecurities, romantic and intimacy problems, even difficulties keeping the house clean. That seems to be what the New Zealand offbeat comedy What We Do in the Shadows (written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also star) is trying to convey to a world that only has the most rudimentary stereotypes about the creatures that come out at night. The comedy, which opens at the Landmark Main Theatre in Royal Oak Friday, is a documentary that pulls the coffin lid back on this world of nocturnal souls. We meet Viago, Vladislav, Deacon and Peter, vampires and housemates hundreds of years old who haunt a rundown - what did you expect? - house somewhere in Wellington, NZ. The documentary crew sent to film them has been given crucifixes for their protection. The movie starts by Viago waking up at 6 pm when darkness falls and giving the crew - and us - a tour of their ramshackle abode. He wakes Deacon (hanging upside down in a closet), Vlad (who’s in bed with a group of women) and the frightening anti-social Peter (in a basement crypt). Viago, a bit of an 18th century dandy, is the neat freak to his dishevelled housemates. He calls a house meeting. Deacon hasn’t washed dishes in five years and they’re overflowing in the blood-splattered sink. And what a mess his housemates make when they attack someone. “If you’re going to eat a victim on my nice clean couch put down some newspapers on the floor.” But the boys really want to get along. Viago informs the viewer that “vampires have had a very bad rap.” The lads take us on a tour of a day in their lives. We meet Jackie, a “familiar” who does the boy’s drudge work like scrubbing blood-splattered rooms. She desperately wants to become a vampire but feels discriminated against. “All I’m saying is that if I had a penis they would have bitten me years ago.” And gets in her digs. “They wear blouses, it’s this homoerotic dick biting club.” Viago, Deacon and Vlad head out for a night on the town. And like many humans they’re rejected at elite clubs by bouncers. Viago, for his part, likes to be nice when he stalks someone. “Play some music, maybe give them some nice wine, it’s their last moments alive so why not make it a nice experience?” Trouble befalls the group when they run into a pack of human werewolves. Later, they capture Nick and turn him into a vampire. But Nick doesn’t know the rules, and does things like rudely flying through the windows and telling all his friends of his new status, which results in the death of poor Peter by a vampire hunter. Nick is put on trial, not least because he insists on wearing the same jackets as Deacon. You get the idea. This movie is a send up of our current obsession with vampires, done in doc mock fashion. I’m hardly into vampire movies and even a movie making fun of them wasn’t all that appealing. But there are enough laugh out loud moments in What We Do in the Shadows that I’d recommend it for a creepy fun night out.