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Hot hot heat
Short takes and tomatoes
As tribute to our waning summer: four movies concerned with sweltering heat, alongside four recent summer meals.
Lucrecia Martel, 2001
In Argentina, a bourgeoisie family summers at a desiccated country estate: the parents drink, the children flail, the indigenous servants bear the brunt. The contours of this film are fuzzy yet palpable, menace and decay lap at its edges, frayed by the heat. The images are submerged in beauty, yet charged with disquiet: mud swirls down the shower drain; ice cubes plinks in red wine; the pool, a waterless void, stands stagnant. A lounging familiarity sprawls throughout the house like heat, rotting garbage, disease. The indolence of the complacent pollutes the atmosphere, as Martel teases out the clash of class divisions inevitably set to rupture.
I thought of this stymied warmth on a recent visit to Bearded Lady. Flies swarmed over a child’s pizza and soggy plants, while the hard surfaces in the bar pinged everyone’s conversations across the room. I nursed two Painkillers and a misbegotten coffee drink for what felt like hours. On the way home I landed at Cruz del Sur. The backyard was cooler than it was inside but full, so I perspired in the dining room over a torta ahogado, a thick and crusty sandwich stewing in a lake of tomato, letting the the heat of chiles wash over me.
Frank Perry, 1968
“When you talk about the swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” goes the famous tagline to Frank Perry’s film. Based on a short story by John Cheever, this movie is an allegory inconspicuously larded with the torment of regret. It is sprightly, tidy, and devastating in the same way that an episode of Mad Men ought to be and often is.
Suave beefcake Burt Lancaster plays a nice white man named Ned who decides to “swim home” by taking a dip into all his neighbors’ pools on the long trek up to his house on the hill. He’s met with a variety of responses that include encouraging amusement, come ons, indignation, and outright fury, but always accompanied by stiff drink of sorts since this is Connecticut mid-century and the liquor never stops flowing.
The film is rated PG, which seems generously liberal given one scene where Ned rustles the bare abdomen of his child’s former babysitter, of legal age, with an open palm. She’s one of a few ladies who Ned invites along for the pool-trek. Another is a young Joan Rivers with plastic bangles, pink dress, looking a bit like Heidi Pratt nee Montag.
At the end of the day, Lancaster is less predatory than he is loopy and forlorn, his eyes twinkling with a curious sheen mingling fear and delusion. The camera zooms in on them with wonky frenzy, matched by the film’s score (Marvin Hamlisch’s first).
Perry obscures our swimmer’s m.o., doling out oblique morsels about his personal life with every pool he visits, each becoming more difficult to traverse as Ned battles exhaustion, reality, and the inevitable cruelty of the passage of time.
On the east coast, tomato season is a wildly anticipatory event, making the tomato sandwich the thrilling antithesis of the ubiquitous avocado toast, which helped spawn cottage industries dedicated to ripening the imported fruit. Wedge thick slices of tomato between thin slices of bread, lightly toasted, heavily buttered, and rubbed with garlic — this is key. The tomato weeps into the bread and alleviates the need for any condiments.
Another way to use fresh tomatoes? Put them on your ice cream, olive oil preferred. I wrote about the unorthodox topping for Eater.
Jonathan Glazer, 2000
A retired criminal named Gal bakes pool-side in the sweltering Andalusian heat, and a gargantuan boulder rockets down the hillside and crunches into the tiled floor. This is a bit of ominous foreshadowing since a larger-than-life monstrosity will unexpectedly arrive at his remote villa, shattering the illusion of his idyll. The aggressor is a monomaniacal hothead played by one Ben Kingsley, who tries to pressure Gal into one last job, making Sexy Beast nominally a heist movie, albeit one where much of the dramatic concern is whether or not said heist will actually happen.
Glazer’s debut is more style than substance, as most debut-noirs are. The camera traffics in the crude bulk of bodies while the actors squawk a rhythmic patter of obscenities. The sustained throttling that betrays little urgency, just vain repetitions, many repeated fucks. The level of discourse boils down to binaries, yes and no, demand and denial, like a parent and child. But such is the power of Sir Ben Kingsley terrorizing four other adults with his mighty forehead.
When the sourdough goes stale or wasn’t great to begin with, there’s always pappa al pomodoro: bread and tomato soup. Panzanella taken to its delightful conclusion.
Woody Allen, 2017
Woody Allen stabs at a Eugene O’Neill and fails to elicit performances from his actors that vibe well with each other and the script, which is a technical and roundabout way of saying that Allen lost his touch as a director some time ago. He also wants to see women suffer, putting them through the ringer harder than Lars Von Trier. Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a plumping shrill hung up on old pipe dreams of becoming an actress. She’s beset by migraines and a tragic flaw — a mix of guilt and aspiration for a better life — that dooms her to unhappiness and a strained existence behind the Coney Island ferris wheel. She’s married to Jim Belushi, but seeing a younger man on the sly who is cultured enough to be a writer, fit enough to be a lifeguard, and dopey enough to be content and optimistic.
Unfortunately, he dumps Ginny for her hotter, younger, stepdaughter (played by Juno Temple) who turns out to be in a bad way and wants to be gangsters. The movie’s conclusion glowers at Ginny, newly disdained pariah by the film’s end.
I suppose it could’ve constituted a moving drama if it didn’t sound a bit like something in real life. To reiterate: an aging actress is dumped by her more cultured boyfriend who falls randomly in love with her stepdaughter. Sound familiar? The boyfriend is played by Justin Timberlake.
Eating en plein air is the main draw at Johnny’s Reef, situated at the edge of Bronx in sleepy City Island (not Coney Island) — though you wouldn’t know it from the large parking lot, which obscures the dining area where shrieking gulls and hushed children assemble over early lunch. On my last visit, fried clams arrived as lean strips resembling fried dough. It’s not far off — there is little bivalve meat, but it’s not really a bother. The scallops, meanwhile, were only lightly clad in batter. The superior thing to get though is the whiting, crisped and golden, and a daiquiri.