Boozehound Cinephile | November 5, 2007 | Comments ()
My name is Ted, and I’m an alcoholic … film-lover. While I would not mock those who teetotal, I do profess to self-recognition and a resulting self-actualization. I’m old enough to know that I love to drink, don’t want to change, and enjoy artistic choices informed by the tiny, chatty monkey who got off my back because the view was better from my shoulder. As a committed, functioning reprobate, I try to inject as much drinking-related action into my life as possible. Christmas, birthdays, and Flag Day are occasions for guilting extended family, casual acquaintances, and wayward clients into offering up rare single malts and antique cocktail shakers. Going to a matinee of Toy Story? Let’s sneak in a pint of bourbon. Guests late for dinner? Let’s have one more snort of vodka - just sip it from the bottle, sweetie.
The missus and I also frequently enjoy a very special kind of weekend afternoon, involving luxurious relaxation while downing copious amounts of the finest hooch and viewing a favorite film extolling the rewards of that exact activity. A great film with a boozy theme is analogous to a good friend or running buddy with a sympathetic weakness for the fun juice. Both are firmly committed to their vice but ultimately responsible, albeit shakily so, about how they exercise it. Both know their limits but occasionally exceed them in the interest of ensuring that everyone has a good time. And both appreciate not only the value of the social lubricant provided by a stiff martini or an Old Fashioned; they embrace it, allowing it to carry them to a better, higher place.
Such films capture the fundamental pleasures of drinking: the practiced ease and grace of shaking up a round for one’s friends; the lilting, honey-warm feeling of that first sparkling sip of nookie nectar; the rapturous ritual of caressing the glass. One of the striking things about this type of cinema is the variety of genres represented: screwball comedies, indie grime, cult favorites, spy flicks, and rom-coms of a certain age. For reasons that will become obvious, the list tilts toward older films — cinema from a simpler time, when carrying a fifth of whiskey in the car’s boot was viewed as admirable foresight, not some transgression akin to shooting the neighbor’s cat. Meddling police. Fucking cat.
The criteria are straightforward. The film need not be about alcohol, but alcohol must be a central or recurring element. The film must not preach about the sins of boozing — indeed, the successful candidate, while self-deprecating on the subject, will frown upon hectoring. Most important, the film must make me itchy for a snootful of sassy sauce, and not only because I want that happy-happy sliding down my throat, but also because the film kindles the essence and feeling of my best boozy moments. In sum, the film must have a strong theme or backdrop that evokes the joys and rewards of boozing while withholding the lecture.
A couple of cautionary notes before we jump in:
Note No. 1: If you thought “Yes! Cocktail!” or “Cool! Beerfest!,” well … you’d best move on to the trade round-up.
Note No. 2: This list does not contain any cautionary tales or gritty “realism” about being an irresponsible drunk. So far, the consequences for me involve a fabulous wife who likes to get schnockered and smoke expensive British cigarettes, a successful career that actually benefits from a stable of clients who enjoy barhopping, and a reliable, quiet addiction that forestalls the gruesome murder of my neighbors who experiment with Indian cuisine. Yes, yes, yes, the health consequences are coming. Well, so is a fucking meteor. There will be no discussion of the great film Barfly, nor will we be covering the likes of Blue Sky or, God forbid, When a Man Loves a Woman. I audited that course, and it didn’t take.
So picture this scenario: It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon; chores done, laundry folded, groceries purchased, and you have no plans for the evening. As luck would have it, you have an ice-cold bottle of Feuillatte brut or a gifted fifth of Johnny Walker Blue waiting for you in the cupboard. In walks your Special Other/best friend/prized roommate/snarky sibling, with an equal amount of no plans. “What shall we do?”
What indeed. Crack open that fine beverage, recline on your velvet divan, and watch one of these films.
The Big Lebowski: Jeff Bridges’ near-constant moustache of White Russian justifies Lebowski’s place in this discussion all on its own, though I prefer to wear a moustache of Guinness foam. “Got Guinness?” I torture my wife with that gag all the time … where were we? Oh, yes: In the warm, decade-long afterglow of Lebowski’s refreshing weirdness, folks tend to forget that this picture is an intricately plotted, well-scripted kidnapping mystery with a stellar ensemble cast that includes John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore, among many others. (Look, it’s Flea!) With his bushy goatee and looking like a young Gandalf, Jeff Bridges delivers an iconic performance as The Dude, a befuddled slacker druid roaming the bizarro Serengeti of L.A.’s darkened suburbascape.
Lebowski absurdly delights on so many levels, not the least of which is The Dude’s fetishized pursuit of White Russians in every other scene, as well as numerous small flourishes comprising a sum far greater than their individual parts: the Latinized version of “Hotel California” for John Turturro’s purple-jumpsuited entrance; the Nihilist trio hurling a crazed ferret into The Dude’s bathtub; Moore’s Madonna-ish, quasi-British accent; and Tara Reid, in her best performance to date as the ersatz kidnapee, epitomized by her propositioning The Dude: “I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.” Who knew how prescient that role would be?
Enjoy with: What else? A White Russian.
The Grass Is Greener: Puzzlingly, this 1960 film rarely even appears on a “Cary Grant Top Ten List,” much less in wider compilations. The Grass Is Greener is a pure delight, however, an incisively witty take on marital manners and mature romance. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr star as husband-and-wife minor British nobility, clinging to status and estate by their fingernails in mid-20th-century Britain. Wealthy oilman Robert Mitchum vies for Kerr’s heart amid copious banter and much mixing of cocktails. Following a whirlwind affair in which Mitchum and Kerr gallivant off to London, the film climaxes (rrowrrr!) with a dinner party, during which much fermented grain and grape are consumed. Pointed quips are tipsily traded, and substantial verbal fencing ensues, followed by a pistol duel for Kerr’s affections.
Grant’s bemused, droll butler acts as the second for both duelists and nearly steals the film — except that there’s already a master thief prowling the set: Jean Simmons, providing a wonderful pivot for the movie as Kerr’s champagne-swilling, divorcee confidante, primarily bent on having a good time and torturing Cary Grant. Not to be missed: the split-screen telephone conversation between Grant and Mitchum, involving much pretending about what is known and not-known, while Simmons and Kerr egg them on. (If your DVD has the inferior, back-and-forth version, return it immediately and continue drinking.)
Having long ago accepted that life justly and wonderfully consists of slowly riding into the sunset with my missus, I deeply appreciate that the imperiled union of Grant and Kerr provides a melancholy riff on comfortable intimacy and the inevitability of routine in any relationship worth having. Every ounce of goodwill accumulated by the cast over the prior 30 years fills the screen, the heart, and the cocktail shaker. The Grass Is Greener serves as a cultural milestone for the fading gallantry and ridiculousness of Fifties romance, turning to an era of sexual liberation that Grant’s maturing audience surely found discomfiting. And so, they went home, poured a champs and a scotch, and got down to some good, married sexual congress, during which both parties fantasized about Robert Mitchum.
Enjoy with: a Champagne cocktail.
Sideways: For you “I-swear-I-didn’t- really- like-Garden State” revisionists, just skip to the next entry. For those of you rooted in reality, let’s re-examine a film embodying everything that indie cinema should be but almost never is: an intriguing character study combined with a tight, subtle script and a renewal of faith in the power of care and nuance as exercised from the director’s chair. Sideways launched Paul Giamatti as a viable lead, maximized the early promise of Thomas Hayden Church, and revived the fulsome bodacity of Virginia Madsen (anyone remember Gotham? Ye cats!). In addition to encouraging schlumpy men everywhere that a decent novel and a magnum of pinot noir might separate Virginia Madsen from her panties, there is also a good deal of boozing and hijinks.
Sideways is also two separate films impressively laid one over the other. One story is, of course, a wistful paean to male camaraderie in the age of PC nonsense. Sideways features a male-to-male relationship that, for many men, provides a fond reminder of scoundrelly friends past. If a buddy treated a hefty waitress the way Church does — on the heels of a well-earned beatdown from Sandra Oh — I’d likely punch him in the eye. If he carried it off the way Church does, I’d probably risk my own ass to retrieve his wallet from her the next morning. For women who care to witness a train wreck, Sideways also provides a candid view of the tragically simple machinery of the male psyche. Like it or not, boozing facilitates the transactions that allow men to bond together, even when their ways have parted. My misty moments during Sideways are as much for groomsmen I haven’t spoken with in several years as they are for douchey-yet-lovable Miles and heartbreakingly vulnerable Maya (Madsen).
But Sideways is also a tale of a man nearing middle age (ahem) who knows that he’s literally just about halfway done, and for whom the solace of a deep, complicated burgundy is the most poignant poetry other than the narcotic brush of a woman’s lips. Miles and his friend Jack represent two significant archetypes for 21st-century males: the underachiever who examines his failures in the dim light of hope and sees a sliver of redemption if he can be worthy of the good people who believe in him; and the how-did-I-get-here gaucho who vaguely comprehends his own pathos but blindly believes that his compadres and a good woman will turn him from his own wickedness.
Enjoy with: a strong scion of the Nuits-St.-Georges family, or a Willamette Valley pinot noir. Merlot does, in fact, suck.
Trees Lounge: To every rule, there is an exception, and this is one “grimy” film about boozing that still makes me feel like pawing open a bottle of Night Train. After Steve Buscemi hit it relatively big in Fargo, he embarked on an indie labor of love, writing and directing Trees Lounge. Remember that bar in the edgy part of town that you weren’t sure was even safe, but they recognized you after a couple of visits and politely refrained from giving you a beating? Remember how great it was to kill a sunny Saturday afternoon nursing a tap beer in that dark, dank hole? Trees Lounge is to film as that bar is to drinking establishments: low on prestige but rich in character. And odor.
This grubby little tragicomedy follows the downward spiral of Tommy, a low-rent mechanic who loses his job and his girl in the space of a week. His solace? Trees Lounge, Tommy’s home away from squalor where everyone knows his name … and spits on the floor when he comes in. After getting shitcanned, Tommy takes a job driving an ice cream truck, then enters into a dangerous flirtation with a New Jersey Lolita played with verve by early period Chloë Sevigny, the ingénue of Kids and The Last Days of Disco.
As for the rest of the cast … well, let’s just say Steve Buscemi is officially out of favors. Aside from Sevigny, we have Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony LaPaglia, Mimi Rogers, Carol Kane, Michael Imperioli … and Daniel Baldwin, in a career-sparking role for anyone not named Daniel Baldwin, channeling the Outside Providence spirit of his brother Alec as Sevigny’s suspicious-bordering-on-homicidal father. This brilliant assemblage of Jersey quirks and then-unknowns congregates and separates in two’s and three’s to create a talky, engaging movie about doing stupid, depressing shit in the wake of crushing personal disaster. Trees Lounge: the sticky leatherette booth of bar films.
Enjoy with: neat rye whiskey with a PBR back, Maxine.
Swingers: Where to begin with a film that is first among equals on the Pajiba masthead, a film about as thoroughly masticated as Pulp Fiction? Beyond its brilliant, relatable humor, hard-earned indie cred, and “feels-like-life” engagement, Swingers signaled a turning point in our cultural view of boozing. After 30 years of tut-tutting and Afterschool Specials, Gen-Xers said, “You know what? I drank my ass off through high school, college, and my sister-in-law’s underpants, and not only am I okay, I’m pretty sure those cocktails helped me get over on life for one brief, shining moment.” Or we might have said, “My head hurts, and I’m pretty sure it’s Trent’s fucking fault.” The point is, Swingers marked the ebbing of the MADD morality tide that consumed the ’80s and ’90s — suddenly, it was okay for Joe Officedrone to punch three martinis in front of his mother-in-law.
Pajiba readers don’t need the insult of a Swingers plot recap — if you frequent this site, there’s a 99.9% chance that you’ve either seen Swingers or had it force-fed to you through bar-rail quoting. That said, when the time comes to watch it for the 23rd time, do yourself a favor: pause the video, pour a cold shaker of gin, whisper “vermouth” over the top, and serve up; then ponder what your life would have been like without that almost-annoying-but-indispensable early-20’s friend who emphatically convinced you on a few special nights that “you are so money and you don’t even know it.” One of the most over-quoted movie lines of the millennium is also a pearl of wisdom brought home by a stiff shot of sluggo across your figurative bow: Most of the world is piddling crap, and if you can muster up some confidence and a good patter, you will rise above it. No matter how stupid a message you left on her machine, Voltaire.
Enjoy with: a Boodles martini, as dry as you can stand.
Casino Royale: This entry is a bit of a cheat on my part, as I include Casino Royale to represent the entirety of the legitimate Bond oeuvre: 1962-1971 and 2006-and-counting. That said, Casino Royale is my favorite Bond film and my favorite Ian Fleming novel — the origin story — and while Sean Connery epitomizes James Bond, Daniel Craig is gaining fast, having (a) fucking owned the role in Casino Royale and (b) made me salivate over the special Bond martini: three parts gin to one part vodka, with a splash of Lillet blanc and a lemon twist. God bless you, sir, and God bless England for making you. The sequence in which Bond invents this cocktail, names it after his paramour, then parodies the “shaken-not-stirred” cliché over the bartender’s inane query … well, that scene alone merits a spot here. Consider also that, when Craig orders “champagne for one” after getting Solange (Caterina Murino) back to his room, I always heave a sigh over visions of ugly-bumping lost, and I’m not even sure whom I more regret not getting the good-and-hard business: Solange, or Craig himself. My breathy reaction to seeing Craig exit the ocean in short trunks is probably instructive, however. (Daniel: Call me. It’s not gay if we both pretend to regret it later.)
On the “fucking awesome” front, after Bond is almost killed by poison, then resuscitated by a portable defibrillator (Thank you, Q!), he finishes off the evening by having dinner with another martini. James Fucking Bond indeed. Daniel Craig and Sean Connery essentially bookend the tut-tut era mentioned above, and it’s no coincidence that the gap between them consisted of effete corporate hitmen who wouldn’t have been out of place at a no-booze-allowed Skymall retreat. Bitches. While later Bonds might parrot the “shaken, not stirred” tagline, only Sean Connery had the stones to chastise the wine selection of an oncoming assassin: “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.” The latest Bond brings the same muscular thirst. Any man who exits Casino Royale without the strong urge to don his tuxedo, fly to Montenegro, and order a stiff martini is either incredibly disciplined or extraordinarily boring.
Enjoy with: If you have to ask, you can’t afford the lingerie.
The Philadelphia Story: In 1940, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fence, fuss, and fight while Jimmy Stewart takes notes and learns how to act. The story is that simple, and in this case simplicity is divinity. Like other classic comedies of its era, The Philadelphia Story utilizes alcohol as a vehicle to free its characters to speak their minds, wreak havoc on best-laid plans, and generally cavort like there’s no tomorrow. In this instance, that last part is of crucial import, as Katharine Hepburn is to be married tomorrow, and to someone other than first husband Cary Grant (aka C.K. Dexter Haven, an all-time great movie name). Since marrying someone other than Cary Grant wasn’t even legal in a 1940’s movie, Grant shows up to stop the wedding, followed by reporter Stewart, seeking a tabloid scandal out of socialite Hepburn’s remarriage. What giddy, beautiful cinema this is, replete with smart, snappy patter and the requisite drunken carrying-on.
It’s no surprise that there are two Cary Grant films on this list — one could easily come up with five or six. I think most men enjoy a sophisticated cocktail precisely because it makes them feel more like him. An elegant suit, a good haircut, and a strong buzz go a long way toward turning dream into reality for the non-lout who can hold his liquor and supply a few colorful quips. I find that with a couple of whiskeys in me, I begin pulling out chairs for my wife and standing in tribute when she returns from a powder. For that matter, what woman isn’t more coltish and frisky after two good pours of Taittinger? Ten seconds after downing a champagne split the missus tends to go all K-Hep on my ass, tossing saucy remarks like grenades and issuing penetrating observations that resolve intimate mysteries of life while fostering a disturbing sense that in twelve years I have learned about two percent of her.
(It should be noted that Cary Grant essentially owns this oeuvre, from early films like 1938’s Holiday with Katharine Hepburn, a nice companion to The Philadelphia Story, to late period, grey-templed Cary Grant in 1958’s Indiscreet with Ingrid Bergman, an excellent bookend for The Grass Is Greener.)
Enjoy with: a Booker’s Old Fashioned.
The Thin Man: Or as I like to call it, “Number-One-With-A- Fucking-Bullet.” It is not the place of mere mortals to capture in words the fizzy rapture of Myrna Loy and William Powell trading bon mots and potshots over murder, scotch and soda, but suffice to say that The Thin Man is as perfect in its way as Casablanca, Stagecoach, or Psycho. Equally important, this 1934 film cast the captivating Loy as the charmingly brilliant and quotably hilarious Nora Charles opposite William Powell’s unconventional hero detective Nick Charles. No shrinking violet, Nora is a fine rose with exquisitely sharp thorns, 50-goddamn-percent of a husband-and-wife team depicted as equals in just about every way, including one-liner gems and drink tallies.
Nick is first introduced teaching the staff at a hoity-toity New York club how to match cocktail-mixing to the appropriate dance beat — for example, a martini is always mixed “to waltz time.” Nora quickly announces her presence, with aw-THOR-it-tah:
NORA: [arriving late] Say, how many drinks have you had?
NICK: This will make [counting] … six martinis.
NORA: All right. [To waiter] Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo? Line them up right here.
The conceit of this Dashiel Hammett story is that Nick, a famous detective, retired after marrying wealthy socialite Nora. While content to live out his days supporting the liquor bottle industry and entertaining Nora with amusing stories, fate keeps interposing mysteries for Nick to solve. When one of Nick’s old friends is accused of murder, Nora pesters him out of retirement to take the case, prompting a typical response:
NICK: Can’t you get to sleep?
NICK: Well, maybe if you took a drink it would help you.
NORA: No, thanks.
NICK: Well, maybe it’d help you if I took it.
Powell plays the more stereotypically male detective role, providing structure for the film, but he’s no Bogart — think Errol Flynn crossed with Rhett Butler and a dash of Niles Crane. With apologies to Powell, however, more important is the actor playing “Woman of My Dreams”: Loy, aka Perfection Incarnate. All bobcat punch and kittenish sex, with no bullshit, Nora spends her time castigating Nick for ditching her during his adventures, rescuing him from empty scotch glasses, and going toe-to-toe with the various rapscallions who wander through Nick’s professional life.
In the end, The Thin Man is about one thing: the perfect scotch-and-soda blend of the most debonair of heroes and the most dazzling of heroines, essentially for purposes of witty sparring and knocking back fine hooch. One of life’s under-advertised pleasures is watching Nick and Nora verbally joust just above the slyest “I am so about to fuck you silly” subtext in all of cinema:
NICK: [reading newspaper account of his shootout the night before] Oh, I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
NORA: I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.
NICK: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
Criminy, this is a good movie. If you look up the word “chemistry” in the dictionary, you’ll find a photo of Powell dodging a Loy line-drive. The Thin Man stands up incredibly well today, despite its dated fashions and hardboiled detective jargon, and has a refreshing view of sophisticated tippling. The film was incredibly popular as an anti-Depression medication and was followed by a series of sequels, the only notable one of which was the second film, After the Thin Man. Roughly 75 percent as good as the original, After the Thin Man featured young stalwart James Stewart and effectively re-captured the magical relationship of Powell and Loy.
Watch it Sunday morning with a spicy Bloody Mary, to stave off the hangover from your perfect Saturday night. Here’s a taste (about 30 seconds in):
Enjoy with: Johnny Walker Black and good soda.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.