Can Food Criticism Ever be Objective?
Monday 12th November 2007
In an interview on Classic FM recently, Gordon Ramsay kindly offered to do the canapés at the funerals of food critics free of charge. The question that prompted this outburst was about Frank Bruni, the chief food critic of the New York Times, who had the temerity to give Ramsay’s Manhattan restaurant a bad review Ramsay isn’t the only restaurateur to express doubts about the infallibility of food critics — and a recent scientific experiment in France would appear to bear out such skepticism. Frédéric Brochet, a Ph.D. student in oenology at the University of Bordeaux, conducted a study in which he invited 57 wine experts to taste an inexpensive Bordeaux that he poured from a bottle with a label saying it was vin ordinaire. The following week, he served the same wine to the same people, but this time from a bottle indicating that the wine was grand cru.

The tasters described the wine from the first bottle as “simple”, “unbalanced” and “weak”, whereas the wine from the second was acclaimed as “complex”, “balanced” and “full”. The conclusion, obviously, is that a wine connoisseur’s judgment about the quality of a particular wine isn’t simply a matter of how it tastes; it is inextricably linked to the cognitive parts of the brain. (My source for this story is a recent piece in the New Yorker that you can read here.)

It seems a fairly small leap to extend the same conclusion to the opinions of food critics. As someone who worked as a food critic for five years, I know from experience that my particular view of a restaurant’s cuisine was inseparable from such factors as how long I’d been made to wait, where I was seated, who my dining companions were, who else was seated nearby … and so on. The best restaurant critics — such as Adrian Gill — are almost wantonly capricious, capable of wild over-reactions to seemingly meaningless details. Indeed, it is this volatility that makes them so entertaining to read.

Interestingly, the one restaurateur who takes this subjectivity on board is Heston Blumenthal. Indeed, the tasting menu at the Fat Duck is based on this idea, with the Professor Brainstorm of the kitchen constantly demonstrating to his customers that their perception of whatever it is they are eating is intimately bound up with a range of completely arbitrary psychological factors. He is, in effect, proving that the way something tastes changes from individual to individual and that any definitive pronouncements on the subject, purporting to be objective, are nothing more than hot air.

And how have the critics reacted to this lesson in humility? They have repeatedly acclaimed Blumenthal as a genius and declared the Fat Duck to be the best restaurant in the world.


No More Films About the War, Please
Monday 5th November 2007
In Hollywood, it is generally believed that the reason so many great films were made in the 1970s was due to the national crisis of confidence prompted by Watergate and Vietnam. In trying to articulate this disquiet, filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola redefined mainstream cinema and — for a time, at least — placed it at the heart of America’s ongoing conversation with itself.

This may help explain why there is suddenly a glut of studio pictures dealing with America’s military presence in Iraq and the War on Terror, including A Mighty Heart, The Kingdom, Rendition, Redacted, In The Valley of Elah and Charlie Wilson’s War. The writers and directors responsible for these movies — as well as the executives who have released the money to finance them — may well be under the impression that getting to grips with these big, political issues is a sign of great filmmaking. Certainly, the reason they are all being released this autumn is because the studios regard them as their best bets when it comes to the Oscars.

This Friday sees the release of what may be the highest-profile film in this category, Lions For Lambs. Directed by Robert Redford and starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, it is an unapologetically didactic attack on the foreign policy of the Bush administration and its allies in Congress. Indeed, Redford himself plays a college professor and about a third of the film consists of him delivering a stern lecture to a smart, but apathetic student who is repeatedly told, in effect, that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The problem with Lions For Lambs, as with the majority of these films, isn’t simply that its treatment of its subject matter is entirely one-sided; it is that no attempt has been made to dramatise the issues. If you compare the approach of the current generation of anti-War filmmakers to their 1970s counterparts, they emerge as disappointingly unimaginative. Their idea of how to persuade people that the War on Terror is wrong is to recreate some appalling event that actually happened — such as the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi schoolgirl by US soldiers that forms the subject of Redacted — and depict the American political and military high-ups who either condoned it or covered it up as Very Bad Men.

In the 1970s, by contrast, writers and directors understood that a less direct approach could be much more powerful. Thus, when Coppola wanted to explore the issues surrounding Watergate, he chose to make The Conversation. Similarly, when Sam Peckinpah decided to take on America’s military-industrial complex he opted for Cross of Iron. Even MASH, the most famous anti-war film of the period, is set in Korea rather than Vietnam.

What this earlier generation grasped — and the reason they made so many great films — is that a well-chosen metaphor can be a much more effective way of making your point than tackling an issue head-on.


Death at a Funeral
Sunday 28th October 2007

The traditional British farce hasn’t been doing very well lately. The Whitehall Theatre has been re-invented as Trafalgar Studios, Alan Ayckbourn hasn’t had a new play in the West End since 2001 and Ray Cooney doesn’t even get a mention in State of the Nation, Michael Billington’s recent history of British theatre. Is the bedroom door about to slam for the last time on this well-loved comic form?

I’m happy to report that the answer is no — at least, not yet. Next week sees the release of Death at a Funeral, a dazzling example of the genre directed by Frank Oz and written by Dean Craig. Set in a country house, the film unfolds over the course of a single day in which an extended family gather to attend the funeral of the clan’s patriarch. The tone is set in the opening scene when the undertakers turn up with the wrong corpse and it isn’t long before a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, a wheelchair-bound uncle and a homosexual dwarf are threatening to derail the proceedings.

The reason it works so well is that Craig, a 33-year-old British screenwriter, has managed to retain the essential components of the form while jettisoning some of its more out-dated aspects. For instance, at no point are any of the male characters discovered with their trousers round their ankles and there are no cases of mistaken identity. The problem with most farces, in my experience, is that they require too great a suspension of disbelief. Events unfold — and people behave — in a way that stretches an audience’s credulity to breaking point. That doesn’t matter if you’re a member of that generation who grew up with the genre — you’ll be willing to accept its bizarre conventions — but modern audiences tend to baulk at just how implausible the farcical universe is.

Fortunately, Dean Craig has injected a much-needed dose of realism into the genre. There’s nothing too theatrical or over-the-top in Death at a Funeral; the big comic set-pieces seem to emerge, organically, from the situation. Far from being comic stereotypes, the characters are people we are familiar with from our own lives and they behave in recognisable ways. In this regard, Craig and his director are helped considerably by an extremely talented British cast, particularly Matthew Macfadyen as the put-upon male lead, Andy Nyman as his hypochondriac cousin and Daisy Donavan as the closest thing Death at a Funeral has to a sexpot.

It is particularly heart-warming to see a British farce work so well on the big screen. In recent years, the most successful celluloid farces have all been the work of a Frenchman named Francis Verber, the writer and director of La Doublure, Le Placard and Le Diner de cons. In Dean Craig — who has already directed two shorts and is about to direct his first feature — we could have found the British equivalent.


Abigail’s 30th Birthday Party
Saturday 20th October 2007

Next week sees the 30th anniversary of a significant cultural event in Britain’s post-war history: the television broadcast of Abigail’s Party. At the time, the BBC had little idea of just how iconic this one-off comedy would turn out to be. It was running as a stage play at the Hampstead Theatre and, rather than commission Mike Leigh to adapt it for television, Margaret Matheson, the producer of Play For Today, decided to transplant the stage production into a television studio and shoot it over four days. The production values were low — Leigh says he can’t watch it without wincing with pain — but Matheson succeeded in capturing lightening in a bottle. In the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, Abigail’s Party was ranked number 11.

Why should this 90-minute play have become such a classic? Well, for one thing, the comedy is played out against the backdrop of the English class system and that is a feature of British life that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years ago. The central character, Beverly, is still a recognizable national stereotype: the petit bourgeois social climber whose constant stream of snobbish remarks inadvertently reveals his or her lack of sophistication. There are echoes of Beverly in David Brent, the character played by Ricky Gervais in The Office, and, indeed, Mike Leigh more or less invented the comic genre that The Office falls into: the comedy of embarrassment. (For my 2003 tribute to The Office, click here.)

Then there’s the fact that Abigail’s Party is so controversial. A few days after it was broadcast, Dennis Potter condemned it as “a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes” and, to this day, people are bitterly divided as to whether Abigail’s Party is an instance of the snobbery it purports to condemn. Are we being invited to sympathise with Beverly as someone whose life has been blighted by class consciousness — or merely laugh at her because she gets everything so hopelessly wrong? Leigh is adamant that it is the former, claiming that Abigail’s Party “is not a play about them, it’s about us.” Whichever side you come down on, the fact that the reaction to the play is so polarized — and can provide the fuel for endless dinner party discussions — is a guarantor of its longevity.

Finally, there’s something monstrous about Beverly that strikes a chord with people the world over, not merely in Britain. (There’s currently a production of Abigail’s Party running in San Paulo.) She’s the Lady Macbeth of the suburbs, a castrating bitch-goddess of the type that has transfixed audiences since the beginning of theatre itself. In Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh and his collaborators succeeded in creating a Medea for our times.

*BBC4 is devoting an entire night to Abigail’s Party on October 28.*


The New York Times Reports on the Making of How to Lose Friends
Sunday 14th October 2007
There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about the film version of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.

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