Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Star Wars Machete Order

         The Star Wars Machete Order, as introduced by blogger Rod Hilton, addresses some of the major problems of watching the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. It calls for watching the films in the following order: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and finishing with Return of the Jedi. For the numerically inclined, it looks like this: 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. 

But what about Episode 1: The Phantom Menace? The film introduces a young Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Star Wars universe in general. You can safely skip over the entire film without significantly detracting from the rest. Qui-Gon Jin? Only ever mentioned two more times as a throwaway line and an excuse to explain why Obi-Wan becomes a force ghost. All of the stuff about Anakin on Tatooine? It’s all re-introduced in Episode II. When Anakin first meets with Padme, she fondly recalled their earlier adventures. Anakin makes it abundantly clear that he’s been lusting after her in the ensuing years, but Padme still seems him as the young boy she once knew.  The quick re-introduction provides all the background for their relationship that you need—especially as his infatuation blossoms into some seriously stalker-ish behavior later in the film. Anakin similarly mentions that he left his mother behind when he joined the Jedi order and he still misses her. This presages his nightmares and desire, later in the film, to find her back on Tatooine. The film even introduces a new villain, Count Dooku, and a new threat, galactic civil war, to replace the groan inducing trade negotiations of Episode 1 (millions of nerd voices cry out in terror every time they are mentioned). Nute Gunray appears in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but is largely shunted to the background. The Machete Order also blessedly removes Jar-Jar Binks as a prominent character. Instead of the bumbling idiot of The Phantom Menace, he becomes a member of Padme’s entourage. In this limited background role, the features that made Jar-Jar so annoying in Episode 1—his stupidity and horrible accent—are dramatically reduced. His reintroduction to Anakin and Obi Wan is brief and merely indicates that he too shared in their previous adventures. Removing The Phantom Menace doesn’t detract from the Star Wars saga in any meaningful way. 

The greatest strength of the Machete Order is that it keeps the focus of the movies on the story of Luke Skywalker. His story drives the narrative arc of the original trilogy. He goes from a frustrated moisture farmer—all he wanted to do was go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters—to Jedi knight and a hero of the Rebellion. Luke’s character is very clear from the beginning. He’s a conscientious, hard-working young man who dreams of a better life for himself. He constantly puts the needs of others ahead of his own. He has remained on Tatooine to help his uncle on his moisture farm while all his friends have left. He risks his life to save Leia, a woman he has never met. InEmpire, Luke cuts short his Jedi training to save Leia and Han, even though he knows he’s walking into a trap set by Darth Vader. Along the way he meets up with his long lost sister, Leia, a roguish smuggler, Han Solo, and a big walking carpet, Chewbacca (who thanks to the death of the Extended Universe no longer dies being crushed by a moon).  There are space battles, lightsaber duels, and some gorgeous cinematography along the way. 

The Machete Order cleans up your mess George!

The Machete Order also preserves the truth of Darth Vader’s identity until he reveals it to Luke at the end of Empire. Watching the films chronologically diminishes the surprise of Vader’s revelation. (Note I’m writing here in terms of preserving the dramatic tension, everyone and their mother knows about the Luke-Vader relationship.) Until this moment, Vader has been the unquestioned villain of Star Wars. He relentlessly pursues Leia, the rebels, and finally Luke. The revelation that he is Luke’s father adds a shade of complexity to the character. By following Empire with the second and third films, the new trilogy serves as an extended flashback, comparing the different paths taken by father and son. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s path towards the dark side of the force is clearly laid out. Traumatized by his experiences in slavery and the death of his mother, he seeks to protect himself and his loved ones, whatever the cost. He becomes increasingly obsessed, especially in Revenge of the Sith, with his own desires. He wants to become a Jedi Master and is incensed when the Jedi Council refuses to promote him. He wants to protect Padme, his wife, even at the cost of every other Jedi in the universe. Anakin speaks of bringing order to his empire. What began as a desire to protect his loved ones becomes all about himself. 

This order of the films also makes it abundantly clear that Anakin is not particularly bright. He places incompetent officers, like Admiral Ozzel, in positions of authority, killing them when they predictably fail. He is easily manipulated by Emperor Palpatine, makes impulsive decisions, and his incredible powers with the force lead him to be overconfident in his own abilities. He duels with Count Dooku only to lose an arm. He’s easily goaded into killing Dooku by Palpatine—immediately noting “I shouldn’t have done that.” In scenes featuring Palpatine or others in positions of authority, Anakin frequently stands to the side staring—the Palpatine-Mace Windu confrontation or when the Emperor is shooting Luke with force lightning are two prominent examples. Only the pleading of his own son reawakens the humanity within him. It is Luke who finally pushes Anakin to kill the Emperor. Using these two films as an extended flashback also sets up Anakin’s redemption in Return of the Jedi as we see what drove him to the dark side and what brought him back. 

In the Machete Order, Palpatine’s brilliance at manipulating Anakin, the Jedi, and the Galactic Republic becomes abundantly clear. He’s playing chess while the rest of the Galaxy is sitting on the ground eating dirt. The new trilogy shows Palpatine’s ability to enact several plans at once, allowing them to develop, and then picking the one that is most advantageous to him. In Revenge of the Sith, he sacrifices Count Dooku, until then his most powerful ally, in order to bring Anakin over to the Dark Side. He controls both sides of a galactic civil war and kills the leaders of the Separatist movement, who had followed every one of his orders in order to consolidate his own power. Palpatine successfully manipulates the Rebel Alliance into attacking the presumably unfinished Second Death Star. At the end of Return of the Jedi, he seems ready to either have Vader kill Luke and eliminate the biggest threat to his own power or have Luke kill and then replace his father as Palpatine’s puppet. Only Luke’s pleas to the little goodness left within Anakin foil Palpatine’s plan. For all of his foresight, he couldn't imagine Darth Vader tossing him down a conveniently located ventilation shaft. 

The Jedi, meanwhile, come out looking rather badly. Episodes 2 and 3 highlight their glaring incompetence in perceiving the Sith threat and Obi-Wan’s utter failure as Anakin’s teacher. Obi-Wan spends more time trying to be Anakin’s friend than his instructor. Anakin frequently disobeys Obi-Wan’s instructions, but gets away with it because his superior skills overcome his initial stupidity. As Anakin becomes increasingly encased in the web of Galactic politics, the Jedi fail to recognize his vulnerability to the powers of the Dark Side. He is frequently angry, frustrated, and desirous of praise and promotion. After refusing to grant Anakin a promotion to the rank of master, the Jedi Council attempts to cajole him into spying on Palpatine, not realizing they’re playing exactly into the chancellor’s hands. Only when it is far too late does Mace Windu sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. Once they realize their mistake, Yoda and Obi Wan attempt to turn the tide—not recognizing that it’s too late. They flee, waiting for another opportunity this time to use Anakin’s children to overthrow the emperor. By hiding Luke’s true parentage from him, Yoda and Obi Wan repeat the same mistakes they made with Anakin while trying to settle a twenty year old score. Luke, however, cares more about others, especially Leia and even his father, to be seduced by the Dark Side. His desire to confront the Emperor and belief in the goodness of his father wins the day over Yoda and Obi Wan’s cynicism about Vader’s true character and motivations. 

The Machete Order represents the best that the Star Wars films have to offer. It features an appealing lead character, a complicated villain, space battles, and charming rogues. It blends the two trilogies together, using them to enhance the story of Luke Skywalker and brings thematic order to George Luca’s cinematic empire.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Hubig's Pies are Coming Back!

           On July 18, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a press release heralding the opening of a new factory for Hubig’s Pies in Jefferson Parish. The factory, set to open in 2020, will mark the return of Hubig’s Pies to Louisiana and the Greater New Orleans area for the first time since 2012, when the original factory, located in the Marigny, burned down.  Over the years, many of New Orleans culinary staples like king cakes and beignets have become well-known. But Hubig’s Pies were, in the words of food writer Ian McNulty, “one of the subtle homegrown pleasures of New Orleans that the city kept for itself.”  

            The Hubig’s Pie itself is a fruit-filled turnover covered in glaze. Once sold in grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores, Hubig’s pies were a staple food item for Louisianans as they grew up.  Governor Edwards described how as a child, he “went to a store and at the cash register you always had the cardboard boxes of Hubig's pies. My favorite was the apple pie. I was always really disappointed if I went through the checkout and I wasn't able to get one of those pies.”  

            Hubig’s Pies arrived in New Orleans in 1922, the brainchild of Simon Hubig, a Spanish immigrant, who arrived in the United States after World War I. He opened the first Hubig’s location in Fort Worth, Texas in 1922 before expanding across the southeastern United States. The Great Depression led to the closure of all of the Hubig’s locations except New Orleans. Unlike other large-scale bakeries, Hubig's relied on workers to produce its pies. The New Orleans location, with its prominent red and blue metal sign, became ubiquitous across New Orleans. Savory Simon, the company’s mascot, was featured prominently on the packaging and advertising.

            By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, Hubig’s was producing over 25,000 pies per week. Flavors included: apple, lemon, peach, pineapple, chocolate, coconut, blueberry, and sweet potato. Hubig’s Pies were also popular as gifts for parties and weddings. During the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run, the company ran a special “Hu-Dat” Pie. Hurricane Katrina damaged the exterior of the Hubig’s factory, but the company managed to reopen in early 2006. 

            On July 27, 2012, the Hubig’s bakery caught on fire in the early morning hours. The fire burned quickly and within an hour the entire building had collapsed. The company announced plans to rebuild, but insurance disputes and other delays quickly piled up. In 2015, the New Orleans City Planning Commission approved plans to build residential buildings on the factory site. Currently, the site is home to condos. 

            While Governor Edwards announced Hubig’s return, the company does not have a specific factory site yet. They have only been granted a small business guarantee loan from the state. The company has stressed that this is an early, but positive step in bringing the company back to life. They also announced they have no plans to change the pie’s famous recipe.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

New Orleans Fried Chicken

New Orleans is known for its rich food culture--Cajun food, Creole food, gumbo, jambalaya, fried seafood, turtle soup, bananas foster, the list goes on and on and on. But New Orleans is also known for its fried chicken. The Crescent City is the birthplace of Popeye's and the New Orleans area restaurants use a special spice blend created by founder Al Copeland that can't be found elsewhere.

A few years ago, Nola.com created a guide to New Orleans fried chicken. In the video below you can see the best fried chicken New Orleans has to offer, but if you want to try it for yourself you'll just have to come visit!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

12 Years a Slave

            English director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave, is the best portrayal of American slavery put to film. Instead of presented a sanitized version of the Old South, made famous by Gone With the WindMcQueen reveals the violence, ordinary and extraordinary, that characterized the relationship between masters and slaves. 

            12 Years a Slave never lets the audience escape from the violence inherent to American slavery. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keep the camera fixed on a series of violent acts. When Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrives in a Washington D.C. slave pen, a slave catcher batters him with a paddle. After Northup’s near hanging by John Tibeats (Paul Dano), he remains hanging by the neck, his toes tapping on the muddy ground just barely preventing him from choking. The longer the scene drags on, the greater the possibility that Northup will lose his tenuous balance and die. Edwin Epps’s (Michael Fassbender) whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) towards the end of the film brings this extraordinary violence full circle. Epps whips her on suspicion of sleeping with another white man. The scene grows especially disturbing as Epps orders Northup, at gunpoint, to whip Patsey as well. Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) watches the spectacle in satisfied approval, as Patsey, the object of Edwin Epps’s sexual desire, suffers horribly. These moments of extraordinary violence remind the audience that violence stood at the core of American slavery. 

            The film also reminds its audience of the casual and systematic violence that pervaded throughout the Slave South. In a New Orleans slave pen, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) demonstrates the physical attributes of a young male slave in one moment. In the next, he beats Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a female slave, for crying at the potential separation of her family. Freeman, then, calmly immediately returns to his business. His ordinary business transaction becomes Eliza’s worst nightmare. In the middle of a midnight dance, Mrs. Epps throws a whiskey decanter at Patsey’s face, badly hurting her. Mrs. Epps, then, orders the dancing to continue as if nothing had happened. In another scene on Epps’s plantation, slaves endure whippings for failing to meet their work quotas as children frolic in a field and slaves go about their daily work. As Northup’s life rests on the pattering of his toes, the other slaves go about their lives, ignoring the nearly dead man only a few feet away. Only a brave female slave shows compassion and brings him a drink of water before fleeing in terror at the arrival of Northup’s owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). In these scenes, violence proves devastatingly banal. 

            12 Years a Slave highlights the wide range of experiences endured by the enslaved. Eliza fathered children by her master and received special favor from him. She had slaves to serve her until her master’s family orchestrated the sale of her and her children south. Clem, a slave in Burch’s slave pen, swears that his master will redeem him. Clem rejoices and embraces his master when he appears to reclaim him. Patsey, Epps’s best cotton picker and the object of his lust, demonstrates the vulnerability of slave women to sexual exploitation by their masters and hatred from their mistresses. Mrs. Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black mistress of a white man, prides herself on being served by slaves and not having to work the fields. Her horrifying pragmatism and scorn for her fellow slaves highlights how some slaves carved out comfortable niches for themselves.  

            There is a similar diversity in the white characters and their role in perpetuating slavery. William Ford is a kind master, but only as kind as a system that brutalizes an entire race of people allows. He protects Northup from murder, but chides him for his character and behavior. Tibeats, the dimwitted degenerate, tries to demonstrate his mastery over Northup and winds up on the wrong end of a vicious beating. Chapin, Ford’s overseer, saves Northup’s life, but only because Ford would lose money if Northup died. Freeman traffics in human flesh as easily as if he were selling produce. Mrs. Epps, the coldly unsympathetic plantation mistress, lashes out at her husband and Patsey alike. 

            Fassbender and Ejiofor warrant special attention for their performances. Fassbender's Epps is Southern ideas of slave mastery taken to their most brutal and extreme. He terrifies his slaves by bursting into their cabins and demanding they dance for his amusement. He surprises Northup with a barely contained menace that never rises above a whisper. While giving instructions, he casually rests his arm on the head of one of young male slaves. He lusts after Patsey with unrestrained abandon, raping her for his own gratification and entering into a crazed passion at the suspicion of her sleeping with another white man. Fassbender’s performance embraces the unchecked power of mastery. 

            Ejiofor ably captures Northup’s descent into the horrors of slavery. At the beginning of the film, his voice is cheerful and buoyant. By the time he reunites with his family, his voice, worn down by year of enslavement, cracks and stammers. The voice of Solomon Northup remains, but is irrevocably broken. Ejiofor conveys the strain of Northup’s enslavement just underneath the surface, knowing never to express too much anger at his situation. He chides Eliza about crying over the loss of her children. Northup sympathizes with her plight, but demands that she, like him, vow to survive rather than submit to grief. 

            The film also juxtaposes white and slave religion. Both Ford and Epps read the Bible to their slaves, dictating it to them and stressing a message of submission. The slaves sit or stand silently as their master imparts his lesson. When left alone, the enslaved sing spirituals and embrace a participatory faith. Slaves engaged in collective religious services as a way of binding together and seeking strength to survive the tortures of enslavement. 

            By showing Northup’s sale from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, the film highlights the importance of the domestic slave trade. Public understandings of slavery in America have stressed the importance of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the horrors of the Middle Passage. Yet the United States ended its participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808 and the American slave population had long since begun growing through natural reproduction. A large domestic slave trade emerged to facilitate the movement of slaves from the Mid-Atlantic to the expanding slave South.     

            12 Years a Slave represents the best film about American slavery by placing the African American experience at the heart of the movie. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Hamilton in New Orleans

         Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton opens with a question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Miranda answers this question with a musical that pulses with relentless energy, employing a multi-racial cast of sympathetic and flawed characters to invest all Americans—regardless of race—in the history of early America. 

         In person, the musical itself is a wonder to behold. From the very beginning of Hamilton, the performers move across the stage with an unrelenting energy. The excitement of the performers and the audience highlights the unique ability of live theater to immerse us in a different time and place.  

Hamilton inside the Saenger 

         Miranda presents Alexander Hamilton as driven, brilliant, and brazenly arrogant. His journey from Caribbean orphan to cabinet secretary epitomizes the American myth that greatness awaits anyone willing to work for it. Hamilton is a Horatio Alger hero incarnate. His skills raise him out of poverty and into the simmering cauldron of Revolutionary era New York City. By the end of the first act, Hamilton is accepting the position of Secretary of the Treasury in George Washington’s administration. In the second act, Hamilton’s arrogance and devotion to his own legacy overwhelm him. He cheats on his wife Eliza with a woman named Maria Reynolds. Later when Hamilton is accused of paying cash to Reynolds’s husband as part of a land speculation scheme (and not as hush money to cover up the affair), Hamilton decides to clear his name. The song “Hurricane” reveals that Hamilton has learned the wrong lesson from his life. Instead of ignoring the insinuations about his character, he decides that he’ll “write ev’rything down, far as I can see… I’ll write my way out… overwhelm them with honesty.” By admitting that he cheated on his wife, Hamilton ruins his political career and his marriage. His reconciliation with Eliza only comes after the death of their son Philip in a duel. Hamilton, however, cannot find peace for long as his simmering conflict with Burr boils over onto a dueling ground in Weehawken. 

         While ostensibly the villain of the show, Burr is a tragic figure. After having being orphaned, Burr is cautious and self-interested. He outlines his philosophy in “Wait for It.” Burr sings, “I am the one thing in life I can control. I am inimitable, I am an original. I am not falling behind or running late. I am not standing still, I am lying in wait.” Burr stands in comparison to the ambitious Hamilton. He remains patient until he sees Hamilton succeed after following Burr’s advice to “talk less, smile more.” Angry that he's been denied credit and power, Burr declares, “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” From that point on, he does whatever is necessary to accumulate power for himself, including unseating Hamilton’s father-in-law in the senate, allying himself with Jefferson and Madison, and most famously trying to steal the election of 1800 from Jefferson. After Jefferson excludes him from his administration, Burr focuses his rage on Hamilton, the man he now believes has undermined his entire career. It’s only after the duel that Burr realizes that his ambition killed his best friend and further ruined his political career. He laments his own failings and recognizes that “the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” 

Hamilton and Washington 

         In the hands of a lesser storyteller, the women of the Revolutionary era might have fallen by the wayside—reduced to the sideshow roles of many musicals. But not in Hamilton. He elevates their role to that of active participants in the Revolutionary era. Angelica Schuyler is introduced searching the streets of New York City for someone who can match her intellect and rejecting all those, like Burr, who fail to measure up. She eventually finds a intellectual equal in Hamilton, but directs him towards her sister Eliza in a show of sisterly love and in acquiescence to the social demands of her time—the penniless son of an immigrant is no fit for the eldest daughter of one of the colony’s richest men. Hamilton wins Eliza over, but his relentless ambition drives a wedge into their relationship. When he cheats on her, Eliza destroys their correspondence, striking a blow at Hamilton’s most prized possession, his legacy. She asserts her own agency through this act of destruction. In depicting the Schuyler sisters as fully realized characters with motivations outside of their relationships to men, Miranda embraces a broader understanding of the Founding generation. It is not just the Washingtons, Adamses, and Jeffersons that are worthy of our attention.

         Through the racially diverse cast Miranda has brought forth a new interpretation of the past--of the Revolutionary generation through the lens of hip-hop. He makes their struggles relatable to people of the 21stcentury. If the nuances of financial policy and cabinet debates fall upon deaf ears in the classroom, when reconceptualized as a hip hop battle they become more understandable. By portraying Americans of the past as Americans of today, Miranda also opens up American history to those who learned it solely as the province of dead white men. The Founders aren’t dead. They’re alive and they look like us. This more inclusive view of the Founding gives everyone a stake in American history—even those who didn’t have one then. In Hamilton, everyone can be in the room where it happens.      

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Willie Mae's Scotch House

Willie Mae's Scotch House, originally located in Treme, opened as a bar in 1957. After a year, the bar moved to its current location in the Sixth Ward, near Treme and the French Quarter. Willie Mae's Scotch House originally featured a bar, a barbershop, and a beauty salon in the front. By the 1970s, however, the beauty salon closed, and taking advantage of the available space owner Willie Mae Seaton expanded the bar into a full-service restaurant.

The restaurant quickly became famous for its soul food and especially its fried chicken. Fried chicken is something of a New Orleans speciality thanks to the efforts of Willie Mae's and Al Copeland and the creation of Popeye's. The restaurant garnered national attention in 1995 when the James Beard Foundation awarded Willie Mae's with an award for "America's Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region."  The fried chicken often appears on lists of America's best fried chicken. The restaurant continued to grow in popularity until it was nearly destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. As with other famous New Orleans restaurants--like Dooky Chase--Willie Mae's eventually reopened in 2007 thanks to the support of local and national organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization devoted to the preservation of Southern food culture.

Currently, Willie Mae's kitchen is run by Seaton's great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton Stewart and still serves the famous fried chicken.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Second Lining

            Second lining is one of New Orleans’ biggest cultural traditions. In traditional brass band parades, there is the main or first line—consisting of the band and members of the organization or club sponsoring the parade. Then there is everyone else who follows behind just to enjoy the music or the atmosphere—the “second line.”  Typically those in the second line wave handkerchiefs or twirl parasols in the air. There is frequently exuberant dancing, drinking, and general jollity. New Orleans also has a tradition of jazz funerals with a band parading through the streets. These, however, are more solemn occasions and feature funeral dirges or hymns rather than the upbeat music common to second lines. 

            Second lining likely derives its origins from traditional West African circle dances where children formed a circle outside the main circle of adult dancers. As with many West African traditions—like the use of spices in food—this second line tradition came via the Atlantic slave trade. African slaves, during their free time, continued to engage in their cultural traditions. As a result, second lining found its way into funeral processions and other group celebrations. While New Orleans’ various slave codes eventually banned such activities since authorities feared that slaves congregating together might eventually lead to resistance or even outright rebellion.  

            After the Civil War African and African American musical traditions began to merge with white traditions like the brass brand cultural. This fusion gave birth to jazz, among other things. While emancipation meant the end of slavery, it did not mean equality. As whites denied the formerly enslaved access to cemeteries, churches, and other businesses, African Americans created their own. They organized benevolent organizations and clubs. Membership in these clubs included brass bands for funerals and at least one organizational parade per year. The increasing frequency of these clubs led to the development of the second line tradition. 

            As a result, second lining is most common in the traditionally African-American neighborhoods of Treme and Central City. They, however, can generally be found all across the city. Jazz Fest features a daily second line to introduce visitors to this quintessentially New Orleans’ tradition. Second lines range in size from a handful of people to hundreds or even thousands. Any occasion featuring a brass brand frequently leads to a second line. The past few years at the DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil has featured a second line. New Orleans, naturally, has a second line season that lasts throughout most of the year. It takes breaks for Mardi Gras—that’s a whole separate parading season—and during the hottest parts of the summer. Some parades are spontaneous and others are planned. Longer parades often make stops, commonly at bars, with food and drinks for members and participants. Most recently, New Orleanians have held second lines in honor of chef Leah Chase and legendary musician Dr. John—both of whom recently passed away.  

            So the next time you see a second line, join in!