After skipping a year, I’m glad to be back with my list of best dining experiences of the year. And of course the definition of “best” for me is different from that of the myriad of food writers, diners, bloggers, Twitteratis, et al who have also put together their year-end lists. For those of you who have been reading my blog since I published my first list in 2007, “best” for me definitely means memorable, delicious, mostly unique or singular. But culinary context has been increasingly on my mind over these past few years as well: cuisines and the conventions of dining can never be separated from the broader culture they evolved from; every ingredient in a dish, every cooking technique used, every dining protocol adopted has a cultural meaning and years of history behind it. In the increasingly borderless dining world that we in the developed countries, well, eat in, where chefs use non-native ingredients and demonstrate influences from different cuisines in their cooking and where diners embrace dishes that are unfamiliar and palate-expanding, culinary context, for me, is essential. In my hometown Chicago, despite being one of the most vibrant dining cities in North America, I’ve been disappointed that some of this year’s most heralded dining newcomers have disregarded context in favor of “chef-fy” precociousness and hipster diner pandering, with disastrous results (case in point: my worst meal of the year was at an alleged Southeast Asian influenced restaurant in the West Loop helmed by a “breakout” young chef where no Southeast Asian flavor profiles or techniques were visibly apparent. You cannot serve a “green papaya salad” in a Southeast Asian-influenced restaurant, regardless of how minimal that influence is, without, uhmm, fish sauce. Other than the green papaya, that’s kinda the point of the dish.).
As a gay man who grew up in the 1980s, there are very few theatrical works, heck, cultural pieces as a whole, that are as important and as resonant to me as Larry Kramer’s 1985 call to arms to address the AIDs crisis, The Normal Heart. I ran to see the 2011 Broadway revival that won Tonys for best revival of a play and best featured actress for a surprisingly feisty, emotionally-sucker-punching performance from Ellen Barkin. And I cried copious tears, not just because of the tragic history of suffering and death among my people, but also at the perception and treatment of gays at that time, vestiges of which continue to this day (and despite the fact in the previous week my home state of Illinois became the 15th state in the union to recognize same-sex marriages, there are still 35 other states that don’t). Last weekend, I saw Timeline Theater’s equally blistering, heartbreaking production of The Normal Heart, and I cried so much more, and so much longer. Definitely because of the same reasons, but also because the intimacy of the staging not hindered by a Broadway house’s size and proscenium, and the visceral acting of Chicago actors not accessorized by movie star glow, more powerfully convey the multitude of emotions-grief, injustice, helplessness, loss- that Kramer intricately explores.
Tags: TimeLine Theatre Company
When I started going to the Chicago film festival in the late 1990s, the child prodigy Mark Zuckerberg was just learning computer programming via Atari software (does anyone even remember this?). During those golden festival days, there was no social media, everything was just, well, social – chatting up your fellow moviegoers as you wait in line for the Lars von Trier or pre-Hollywood Alfonso Cuaron film, talking about which films moved you, which ones you’d like to see come back as a “Best of the Fest “ screening, which ones you walked out of (yep, walkouts have been a film festival staple since I can remember). This year, there are still lots of in person chatter inside and outside the theaters (one thing that hasn’t changed through the years as well is that these festivalgoers continue to be an opinionated bunch!) but there is also a lot more activity online which are then fed onto the filmfest’ s social media board developed in conjunction with Cultivate Studios, on prominent display in AMC’s second-floor lobby. I thought this was one of the most valuable new features of the filmfest, an essential tool for increasing audience engagement throughout the two weeks – I loved seeing what people were tweeting about the movies they saw and what Instagram photos they were posting (#chifilmfest). Of course I was also alternately pleased and horrified to see my twitter photo come up on the board several times – especially after I just trashed the Polish gay film in 140 characters! Ooops! Here are my thoughts on the last set of films I saw.
If you’ve been reading my blog from the beginning, you know that by the time the second week of the Chicago International Film Festival comes along, I’ve turned into a cantankerous, bleary-eyed, semi-coherent mess after standing in too many lines, eating too much stale popcorn, hearing too many inane talkback questions, and, especially, watching too many plodders about Argentine farmers or Hungarian small-town thugs or, during one year, cross-dressing teenage boy mediums (with a side of Amazonian Indian dancers called the Space Triplets thrown in!). But this year, I’ve felt energized going into the second week and not just because the lines going into the films have been smooth and orderly and the talkbacks have been valuable with many of the directors coming into Chicago to talk about their work, but also because the films have been excitingly accomplished and refreshingly anti-Hollywood (the AMC River East popcorn, on the other hand, continues to be stale but nothing an additional swish of butter couldn’t take good care of). It’s either, with the Film Festival’s new-found prestige, it has been able to program the crème de la crème of the festival circuit, or after 13 years, I’ve been getting better at choosing films to see. Maybe it’s a little of both. Here are my thoughts on some of the films I saw this past week and weekend.
There’s been such a sea change in moviegoing since I first started attending the Chicago International Film Festival in 1999: you can now watch movies on streaming NetFlix anywhere as long as you have a laptop, and some of these movies are available on-demand the same day they’re released in the movie theaters. The ones you do end up going to see in theaters are usually event spectacles, such as the current critical and box-office champion, Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron – interestingly his 1999 stunner Y Tu Mama Tambien with then boyish babes Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna was one of the films I saw during my first festival year. But for an avid arts and culture person like me, no amount of convenience and easy accessibility can replace the exhilaration of seeing film in a darkened room, on a 22 feet screen, with a silent and passive yet likeminded community of people. Film festivals like this year’s smoothly-run, globally-competitive (congratulations guys!) Chicago festival reminds you of why you fell in love with movies in the first place (and it wasn’t because you were eating a bagel while watching The Hangover on your Mac cramped inside a rush hour Red Line train car). Following are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw this year.
It has been quite the busy Chicago fall theater season so far; I saw eight shows over a two week period during the last week of September and the first week of October. Yes, yes, I say that every year, but 2013 seems to be particularly burdensome, and maybe that’s because the number of plays I’ve seen since the season formally opened in early September that have been disappointing, unsatisfying, or generally leaving me wanting for more has been much higher than on the other years I’ve been writing this blog. Two of the plays I saw during that crazy theatrical marathon was Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere of Heidi Stillman’s stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ autobiographical novel/screenplay The North China Lover which she also directed, and Steep Theatre’s North American premiere of Simon Stephens’ Motortown , directed by veteran Stephens interpreter Robin Witt. Both shows have interesting, unique stories to tell about the scarring, wrenching impact of the past on someone’s present, and both demonstrate a lot of artistic effort and thought. Unfortunately both plays suffer from flawed playwriting (and in the case of The North China Lover perplexingly lethargic direction), and no amount of heroic effort can make up for that.