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October 17, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | October 17, 2008 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: Barcelona, the Official Favorite Film of the Boozehound Cinephile, for approximately the 22nd time. Barcelona is the second film in director Whit Stillman’s triptych study of the maturation process of na├»ve American youth, along with Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco.

Beverage Consumed: As long as we’re on favorites, the Vesper, Official Cocktail of the Boozehound Cinephile. Ian Fleming first introduced the Vesper as James Bond’s tribute to love interest Vesper Lynd in Fleming’s Casino Royale. Tersely described by Daniel Craig in the film version, the Vesper certainly may consist of “three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet … shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel.” Some of the more bucktooth-stupid recipes I’ve seen crassly refer to this drink as the “James Bond Martini” - even the New York Bartender’s Guide, generally beyond reproach, inexplicably uses this term. Would you call a Mustang GT Fastback “The Steve McQueen Ford”? No, you would not. Actually, it’s worse than that, since a Vesper is not a martini at all, though it should be served in a martini glass.

In any event, after thousands of hours of research, I can report to you that the well-made Vesper is only slightly more complicated than Fleming envisioned, though Bond generally has the right of it. The crux of the Vesper is the subtle interplay between the complex, herbal flavors of good gin and the lilting, wine-like taste of Lillet blanc, accented by the fragrant oil of the twisted lemon peel - imagine a few hours of deep tongue-kissing with Eva Green, occasionally pausing to ensure that her oral pleasuring is taken care of, all under the watchful eye of her citrus flower perfume.

Let’s just let that concept marinate for a moment.

Now. Where were we? A six-to-two-to-one ratio of gin, vodka, and Lillet is both too much gin and not enough at the same time, and Bond further obscures the matter with the proposed treatment of the lemon peel. Beginning with our measures, the proportion of Lillet should be far less than that of the gin - just as a good dry martini involves a healthy splash of vermouth against about a cup of gin, the measure of Lillet should fall into the “splash” category. At the same time, going with a heavy measure of gin essentially converts a traditional dry martini with a different mixer, which is not the point at all. Lillet is a shy and delicate lover and will not stand up to gin the way vermouth does. Diluting with water is out of the question; even if one were interested in emasculating this drink by diluting its punch, the flavor would suffer terribly with such an interloper. Instead, our good friend vodka rides to the rescue, providing essentially the same octane as the gin while also offering a crystalline platform upon which the beefy, masculine gin and the elegant, feminine Lillet may conduct their foxtrot. For best results, increase the measure of vodka to equal that of the gin, which makes for simpler preparation and easier recipe-remembering. Everyone has their own favorite brands (more on that concept in a moment), but for gin, I like Boodles; for vodka, I tend to stick with Stoli, though I have a long list of alternatives suggested by your e-mails.

Combine the gin and vodka with the splash of Lillet in your favorite cocktail shaker; Mrs. socalled found my best shaker at an antiques show years ago: a stainless steel container cast in the form of a rocket ship, complete with a small stand that allows the fuselage/shaker to sit on the rocket’s “fins.” Mrs. socalled is just the best.

Now for that lemon peel. I’ve never been good at cutting “twists” of lemon from the peel, and several kitchen-toy outfits offer a tool for cutting optimum widths and lengths of peel. The critical thing here is to cut directly over the glass - the whole point of using a lemon twist is to capture the lemon’s essence without adding lemon juice to the mix. Lemon juice is to lemon peel oil as sweat is to blood - it’s not just the location that makes it different. In terms of how much peel, I say go nuts. I usually cut about six inches of lemon peel over the glass, then immediately pour the ice-cold shaker directly on to the peel, effectively mixing in with the lemon.

And that, folks, is my favorite cocktail. I don’t know what it is about Lillet blanc, but just as tequila can affect the temper toward aggression, Lillet imparts a sense of sweet well-being. I don’t care for Lillet rouge at all, but the golden version is an essential for the well-stocked bar.

Summary of Action: Barcelona is perfect in its own way, but it might be a surprising choice for a “favorite” film. The relationship between the “greatest” of anything and one’s “all-time favorite” of the same category endlessly fascinates me, given that they are rarely the same for most people, and Barcelona epitomizes the distinction. While clearly not in the same class as Casablanca, my personal choice for GFOAT, or even modern quasi-classics like Trainspotting, Barcelona somehow lodged itself in my brain as the preference for repeat viewing over all other contenders.

In Barcelona, Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols play Ted and Fred Boynton, “so-called only cousins,” as Ted phrases it, meaning that each of them is the other’s only cousin in the family. Ted works in Barcelona as a sales executive for an industrial company based in Chicago. As the movie opens, Fred, a lieutenant in the Navy, pays Ted an unexpected visit as the advance man for the fleet’s shore leave in Barcelona. Despite the tense relationship between the cousins, based on some obscure family history, Fred ends up staying with Ted for an extended period, during which they romance a pair of Spanish girls, Montserrat (Tushka Bergen) and Marta (Mira Sorvino). (Yes, that Mira Sorvino.)

Ted’s and Fred’s relationship difficulties, both with each other and with the girls, play out against the political anti-Americanism of Barcelona’s youth, based on the United States’ interference in other countries’ affairs. The political backdrop provides important context for the characters’ motivations and the dramatic opportunities for the narrative. The tensions between Ted and Fred, and between each and his self-perceived failures, escalate over the course of the film until a breathtaking act of violence unites them in an entirely unexpected way, opening a third act that brings a set of romantic twists which, even after a couple dozen viewings, never fail to satisfy.

Beyond the leads, the supporting cast is terrific, particularly the succession of Spanish girls successfully capturing the wide-eyed awkwardness of open-hearted natives endeavoring to understand and get along with puzzling foreigners. Sorvino does well as the backstabbing slut whom it’s impossible to despise; she’s young and foolish, but not evil, and her dalliance with Fred drives critical parts of the story. Tushka Bergen, as Ted’s girlfriend Montserrat, is wonderfully expressive, and it’s our loss that she was marginalized to the ghetto of TV drama guest spots and crap secondary releases in the U.S.

On a deeper level, beyond the surface comedy/drama, Barcelona uses the political backdrop to function as an examination of the conflicting personalities of the United States, the two sides of the same identity: the friendly, open-minded yet somewhat moralistic side, contrasted with the reactionary, somewhat dimwitted, partially xenophobic side. “Barcelona, Spain,” intones the opening title card; “The last decade of the Cold War,” and the grappling of Ted and Fred with the culture and sociopolitical realities of Barcelona nicely reflect the fumbling interactions of a young American culture with its wizened, pragmatic European allies as the U.S. finds its place in maturity. (There was reason for optimism when Barcelona was released in 1994, following the measured restraint of Gulf War I and Bill Clinton’s approach to the world as a community of nations; little did Stillman know the U.S. would date-rape its European admirers a decade later.)

Stillman brings a non-hostile appreciation for how ridiculously paranoid and misinformed overseas views of the United States can be, even when the underlying anger is completely justified. Montserrat’s ex-boyfriend grimly informs his Spanish friends that the “A.F.L.-C.I.A.” is an intelligence network of American labor unions undermining other countries by poisoning their workers’ movements. As Marta parrots, “It is America’s largest labor union, terribly right wing and facia [fascist].” When Fred and Ted stare at her blankly, she adds indignantly, “It’s amazing what Americans don’t know about their own country.”

At the same time, Stillman has a great ear for true thematic irony, with Fred consistently acting as the poster boy for American thickheadedness in ways that don’t even register with the credulous Spaniards listening to him, such as when he responds to another Spanish girl’s disgust over violence in the United States:

Girl: You can’t say that Americans are not more violent than other people.
Fred: [shakes head] No.
Girl: All those people killed in shootings in America?
Fred: Oh, shootings. That doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.

As Fred later puts it, “I did not confirm their worst assumptions. I am their worst assumption.”

For all that, however, Barcelona is a witty, talky, friendly film that plays primarily as an extended riff on an uncomfortable relationship between two very different young men who nevertheless relate more closely to each other than to anyone else. If whip-smart dialogue is a dying art, then Barcelona may have represented its modern zenith. There is virtually no cursing, no self-indulgent cultural references, and no snappy patter. Many of the characters speak English as a second language; Fred is an unapologetic jackass; Ted speaks with a slight habitual stammer that renders his line readings utterly naturalistic. It all clicks in a way that requires no packaging, no flim-flam, no misdirection. It’s a complicated yet straightforward story that expects you to pay attention and savor the individual moments.

Indeed, the joys of Barcelona are found in the chatty, sometimes moody interactions between Ted and Fred:

Ted: Spanish girls tend to be really promiscuous.
Fred: You’re such a prig.
Ted: No, I wasn’t using “promiscuous” pejoratively, it’s just a fact. They have a completely different attitude towards sex.
Fred: Well I wasn’t using “prig” pejoratively.
Ted: [pauses] Okay. I’m a prig.

A true mark of Stillman’s writing is the conversational soliloquy, and Barcelona brings the observational quasi-monologue with a vengeance. Such devices are risky, and less confident writers or directors can bog down a film with characters’ self-conscious monopolization of the proceedings, taking the viewer right out of the film’s reality. Throughout the film, Stillman keeps the words crisp and believable, using the technique to render the characters more endearing, as with Fred’s consternation over literary undertones:

Fred: Since I’ve been waiting for the fleet to show up, I’ve read a lot, and one of the things that keeps popping up is this about “subtext” … plays, novels, songs, they all have a “sub-text,” which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So, sub-text, we know, but what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?
Ted: [bewildered] The text.
Fred: Okay, that’s right, but they never talk about that.

How the Pairing Held Up: In all seriousness, for a smart, sophisticated viewing experience, mix up a Vesper and sit down with Barcelona. It will be a pleasant mental and emotional buzz, and you’ll thank me later.

Tastes Like: Did I mention the Eva Green/oral sex thing? Will I ever get tired of comparing cocktails to tail-tails?

Overall Rating: An earnest ten out of ten.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

Barcelona: Ted Boynton

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