“The First Chicken That Tastes Like Chicken”

The other day I was on my morning walk when a commercial truck rumbled past.  It was a truck for the Gerber Poultry Company, advertising its “Amish Farms” brand chicken with the slogan:  “The first chicken that tastes like chicken.”

Intriguing slogan, isn’t it?  It’s a bold claim, as many commercial taglines are, but it’s far more subtle and nuanced than “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” or “M-m-m good!” or “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”

After all, at a certain level, everything — from frog legs to rabbit to squab to alligator — tastes like “chicken.”  At least, that’s what people will tell you.  If it’s the flesh of a creature that has mild, soft white meat that isn’t particularly gamey in flavor, the inevitable culinary reference point is “chicken.”  So, obviously, you’d expect any brand of chicken to taste like . . . chicken.

chicken-surprisedBut the Gerber Amish Farms slogan goes deeper than that.  By claiming to be the first chicken that tastes like chicken, it’s really saying that those of us who haven’t had Gerber poultry don’t really know what chicken tastes like.  Fans of The Matrix will remember the scene at the mess table on the Nebuchadnezzar where Mouse raises the profound question of whether anyone really knows what chicken actually tastes like.  After all, the computers that designed the Matrix presumably would have no idea what chicken truly tasted like — they would simply create a taste, plug it into the Matrix program, and all of the humans linked into the Matrix would accept it as “chicken,” just as they accepted everything else in the simulation as true reality.

So the Gerber Farms slogan presents a jarring concept.  Knowing what “chicken” tastes like is a foundational building block for modern Americans.  If you don’t know what chicken tastes like, what do you know, really?  It would be like learning that the sky actually isn’t blue, or that space aliens live among us, or that Donald Trump is secretly one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.  Suddenly, your perception of reality is shifted forever, and there’s no going back.

So I’m not quite sure I want to try that Amish Farms poultry and learn what chicken actually tastes like.  It might be like Morpheus offering the red pill . . . or the blue pill.

Bucket List

When Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman filmed The Bucket List, their characters had very lofty goals in mind — like climbing the Himalayas, racing Mustangs, or eating at the finest restaurants in France.  

Me? My “bucket list” items are simpler and more straightforward — like, what would it be like to be A 01 on a Southwest flight?  It turns out that is isn’t so much different from being A 35, because so many pre-boards go in first that you don’t get that “the plane is my oyster” feel.

Still, I got to sit in an exit row on a Southwest flight.  Not bad!  

Next stop . . . the Himalayas.

Giving Us A Reason To Watch The Oscars Again

I didn’t watch the Oscar broadcast last night.  I haven’t watched it in years, as the broadcast has gotten longer and longer and the speeches more self-congratulatory and tedious.  I’m not alone in this — the Nielsen ratings for the Oscar awards ceremony have been falling for a number of years.

US-OSCARS-SHOWSo, when I saw this morning that the Oscars, through Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, screwed up the announcement of the best picture in legendary, unforgettable fashion, I wondered:  could this have been done to try to increase the ratings for the show?

After all, people like the possibility of surprises.  Many Nascar fans go to races in hopes of an exciting crash or two, and lots of hockey fans yearn for a throw down the gloves fight.  Reality TV shows are all about unexpected twists and turns that leave viewers talking.  If the Oscars is just going to be a bunch of tuxedo-clad and ball gown-wearing stiffs reading cards from an envelope, it’s pretty staid stuff.  But if there’s a chance that the announced winner turns out not to be the real winner, and there’s a big, confusing scrum onstage while things get sorted out, maybe people will start tuning in again.

It’s hard to imagine how the announcement of the winner for best picture could be so botched.  I feel sorry for the people involved in making La La Land, who initially thought they had won, and I feel sorry that the people involved in making Moonlight, which I thought was a fine film, had their moment of triumph tainted by a foul-up.   But maybe this colossal screw-up will make Hollywood a little less smug.  That wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Jack Is Back

We all could use a little good news these days.  Here’s some exceptionally good news for me:  Jack Nicholson has decided to return to the big screen, after an absence of seven years (!), to star in a remake of the German film Toni Erdmann.

jack-nicholson-to-return-to-movies-toni-erdmannI haven’t seen Toni Erdmann — it hasn’t made its way to Columbus yet — but I’ve seen the previews and read about it.  Nicholson seems well-suited to playing the part of the daffy Dad who intrudes upon his daughter’s life.  But really . . . I think I’d watch Jack Nicholson in just about anything.  He’s been a huge personal favorite since I first saw him, way back when, in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.  And while he’s made some clinkers along the way, he’s been brilliant in so many movies — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, A Few Good Men, About Schmidt, and the list goes on and on — I think he’s clearly the best actor of our time, and certainly one of the top five in history.  Hell, he even made Batman a lot more interesting.

Whenever somebody comes back to work after a long absence, you always wonder whether they’ll be at the top of their game, or whether they’ll be resting on their laurels.  With Nicholson, coming back after such a long absence, I don’t think that will be a problem.  He’s always good, and I suspect he’s want this film to really be special.

Publishing Actors’ Ages

Let’s say you were concerned about age discrimination in Hollywood, where male stars seem to get roles no matter their age, while female actors — other than the peripatetic Meryl Streep — seem to have difficulty getting cast once they hit 45 or 50.  Would you:

(a) notify everyone in the film industry that you were assigning an extra investigator to specifically focus on enforcing existing laws against age discrimination in the industry;

(b) decide that current federal and state law wasn’t sufficient and therefore enact new legislation directly regulating age discrimination at the movie studios that make the films; or

(c) enact a law preventing internet sites, including specifically the IMDb website, from publishing actors’ ages and date of birth information.

Weirdly — or maybe not so weirdly — California chose option 3.  Yesterday a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that “it’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment” because it bars IMDb from publishing purely factual information on its website for public consumption.  And, the court found that although preventing age discrimination in Hollywood is “a compelling goal,” California did not show the new law is “necessary” to advance that goal.  The judge added:  “In fact, it’s not clear how preventing one mere website from publishing age information could meaningfully combat discrimination at all. And even if restricting publication on this one website could confer some marginal antidiscrimination benefit, there are likely more direct, more effective, and less speech-restrictive ways of achieving the same end. For example, although the government asserts generically that age discrimination continues in Hollywood despite the long-time presence of antidiscrimination laws, the government fails to explain why more vigorous enforcement of those laws would not be at least as effective at combatting age discrimination as removing birthdates from a single website.”  You can read the judge’s pointed, three-page ruling here.

This conclusion is not surprising to anyone who understands the First Amendment, and presumably didn’t come as a surprise to the lawyers trying to defend California’s law, either.  All of which begs the question of why California legislators enacted it in the first place — and that’s where the “maybe not so weirdly” comment from above comes in.  I’m sure the Hollywood community is, collectively, a big-time contributor to political campaigns on a California state level, just as it is on a national level.  If you were a politician who wanted to say that you had done something to address age discrimination in Hollywood, but without doing anything that might actually, adversely affect the rivers of cash flowing to your campaigns from the big studios, supporting a law that affects only an internet website that actors hate because it discloses how old they really are is a much safer bet.

It’s nice to know that we have federal judges who understand what the First Amendment means, even if California’s elected representatives are clueless.  And if those legislators are so concerned about age discrimination in Hollywood, maybe they’ll actually do something about it — rather than just taking steps to block speech they don’t like.

Screening The Shorts

Today Kish and I continued our project to see as many of the the films nominated for Oscars this year as possible.  We screened the five “live action” short films that are up for an Academy Award.  They are playing, as a group, at the AMC Lennox.

timecodeUnder the Academy Award rules, the short film category is limited to movies with a running time of 40 minutes or less, including credits.  The films therefore must be more compact, without a lot of subplots or extraneous characters who might otherwise hog the screen time.  And yet, the storytelling is still there — and in fact might actually be enhanced and made more powerful by the time limits.  When you compare the short films to the kind of big-budget fare that Hollywood typically produces, you realize that all of the CGI and explosions and special effects sometimes interfere with, rather than promoting, the basic tale-telling that is a key part of the magic of movies.

The five finalists for 2017 include films from Hungary, Denmark, Spain, France, and Switzerland.   All were terrific, and their stories, and tones, were dramatically different.  The Hungarian film, Sing, told the story of a children’s choir controlled by a domineering conductor.  Silent Nights, the Danish movie, explored a relationship between a Ghanan immigrant trying to make money to send home to his family and a volunteer at a Salvation Army shelter.  In the Spanish film, entitled Timecode, a security guard at a parking garage who has to review surveillance video learns something surprising about the guard who holds down the other shift — and the movie ends with a laugh out loud joke.  The French movie, Ennemis Interieurs, is a taut interrogation between an Algerian immigrant who wants to become a French citizen and the police office relentlessly questioning him to try to determine if he might be a terrorist.  And the Swiss film, La Femme et le TGV, introduces us to a baker and chocolatier whose innocent act of always waving the flag and smiling as the train rumbles past her house produces some interesting consequences.

There’s lots of good movies and talented filmmakers out there, and the short film genre allows the Academy to recognize works that otherwise might not get much attention.  If the five nominees come to your local theater, you won’t regret checking them out.

My First Phone Number

The other day the Jersey Girl and I were discussing the wonderful movie Lion, and specifically the part where a five-year-old boy, suddenly finding himself in a strange city a thousand miles from home, was unable to communicate his home town or his mother’s name — but nevertheless could fend for himself and survive for months.

Could we have done the same?  As five-year-olds, would we also have been unable to communicate to the authorities about how get us home?

rotaryphone-jpeg-size-custom-crop-755x650I’m quite sure that, at the age of five, I didn’t possess the kind of hardiness, stoicism, and long-term survival skills “Saroo” showed in Lion.  (After all, he and his brother were out stealing coal from trains and using other techniques to try to help feed their family, and I was just growing up in a small but tidy house in Akron, Ohio.)  But, I did have one thing that Saroo apparently lacked — my mother drilled all of the little Webners relentlessly, so we would memorize our names and our phone number.  Even as a small boy, I knew my name, my street, my city, and that seven-digit number that someone could call to let my parents know where I was.  And, in fact, when I went wandering around the block on one occasion, I told the nice people who found me my phone number, and they called and Mom came and got me.

Even now, 55 years later, that same phone number comes immediately to mind.  I can’t remember the phone numbers I had in my college apartments, or when Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., or in our first homes after moving back to the Columbus area, but I remember that first phone number with ease.  It’s as if the drilling with Mom at the kitchen table as I ate another bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter morning engraved that phone number into the deepest synapses of my brain, where it can never be erased.

Of course, it’s totally useless information now — but still, it’s kind of comforting to know that I still remember something from so long ago.  Mom did a pretty good job.