Plant-based horror

Little Joe, pistachio pudding, and male myopia.

Welcome to the latest issue of moviepudding. In this edition: working moms, Jell-O, the new Charlie Kaufman, a old Albert Brooks, and 80s B-horror.

Little Joe

Only trouble ever arises when humans wrestle with nature and try to wrangle it to their whims. This prescribed struggle takes a subdued turn in Jessica Hausner’s English language debut where a working mum struggles to have it all. Divorced Alice (Emily Beecham) works as a geneticist by day, takes care of her preteen son by night, and scorns advances from an admiring colleague (Ben Whishaw) all the while. By skirting company regulations, she engineers a plant that makes its caretaker happy. So effective the endorphin-inducing flora it alters the sniffer/owner’s genetic makeup and personality, a survival tactic to raise up a legion of minions. Among the potentially afflicted (or comforted): her son and a lab tech’s dog. When an unplaceable moodiness sets in, one wonders if it’s growing pains or if they’ve changed.

Treading softly, the movie is more of a moodpiece than your usual sci-fi horror deal. In an unnerving score, a pan flute (or recorder) shrills alongside the laboratory thrums, making you think twice about what’s happening on screen in the arresting stark white of the frame. Russet and pumpkin hues color Alice’s home life, but at work a restive palette of mint green and seafoam tones abound, signalling zen and growth that belie the devious virus at hand.

The cafeteria in the Little Joe only stocks dainty cakes making it look like the Little Confectionary Shoppe of Horrors. Alas none of them actually match the film’s mint chip color scheme, but perhaps that’s because Hausner wasn't familiar with Watergate salad. The origins of this 70s dish are murky, but absolutely clear is its intended appeal: a dump-and-go sugar-bomb masked by a healthful and trendy nom de plume. I was made privy to its existence on Molly Young’s instagram seen below, and struck by its preternatural hue. I decided I must consume it in spite of or because of its retro ingredient list.

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August 20, 2020

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The “salad” consists of stuff that hasn’t perambulated your mind in the last few years, if ever — instant Jell-O pudding, canned pineapple, marshmallows, and Coolwhip — save for a handful of actual pistachios or other nuts, tossed together as the name of the dish implies. Jell-O came into prominence with the rise of processed foods in postwar America and it’s during this time that housewives grappled with a goldilocks problem of exerting just the right amount of effort in the kitchen, not too little, not too much. A slavish cook was disdainful, but failing to supply hearty, home-made meals to your husband was an equal sin. Instant gelatin, customizable and convenient, provided a fix while also “democratizing the daintiness that exemplified women’s preferred taste” at the time— cutesy tea sandwiches for example.

Savory jello is mostly extinct, but the sweet variety persists. It also undergirds the best seller at New York’s most popular bakery. Banana pudding and Watergate salad share DNA but are ultimately of a different class, the former being a trifle and much tastier for it.

When arbiters of culinary taste talk about balanced texture, I don’t think they mean to have a number of them suspended in one freeform amalgam, but that’s what you’ll encounter with Watergate: the crunchy, fluffy, and grainy in any given spoonful. Flavorwise, the pineapple runs amok, even though I only used a quarter of a 16oz can. Spreading the mixture onto a tea biscuit or sandwiching it between some other sweet hardtack, like say Oreos, ameliorated the mouthfeel problem, but seemed counter intuitive to the spirit of the dish and logically dubious— why mess with the processed perfection of an Oreo?

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I’ll pass on the green goop, but I will continue to find new uses for Jell-O, the dependable, magical foundation of your convenient no-bake dessert. The ads were right; nothing is easier, not even the microwave, and the impressive payoff of a set-pudding in five minutes exceeds any nuking done in seconds. Perhaps my enthusiasm runs high for this powderized miracle as someone who grew up not eating it, but for now I remain enchanted. With an extra box on hand, I made an unplanned pistachio oreo pudding reminiscent of that seasonal “dirt” outfitted with gummy worms that you’d eat right around this time of year when you were nine.

1 box of instant Jell-O pistachio pudding
2 cups of milk of your choosing (the box advises skim, but never will I ever)
Oreos separated and denuded of cream (Do not crumble!)
Heavy cream (or ready-made whipped cream)
Make the pudding. Whip the cream. Layer cookies, pudding, and cream with abandon in a glass dish or plastic tub. When you’re ready to eat, spoon it around a little bit, and finish within a day or two as the Oreos are prone to swift disintegration.

Next time perhaps I’ll deploy the instant stuff as a shortcut to a coconut-pandan cake. Suggestions and further Jell-o commentary welcome, just respond to this email.


A gonzo splatterfest: Blood Diner

The faddish vegetarian restaurant all the cool kids are patronizing in L.A. happens to serve human remains enrobed in falafel or dressed up as meatless patties in Blood Diner. A 24 year-old Asian American woman directed this sequel that surpasses the iconic, though clumsy, original by Herschell Gordon Lewis. A scary movie aficionado can attest to the shookness-inducing quality of this camp rarity better than I.

Unconventional horror movies

On free-wheeling terrors of male myopia

Modern Romance

In what is nominally a comedy, Albert Brooks’s nebbish film editor breaks up with his girlfriend, only to chase after her with jealous vigor and insistence that borders on stalking. He is unexceptional in every regard, except in the realm of self-confidence, which he possesses enough of to power a small town— perhaps requisite to surviving Hollywood. Egotism is an insidious force, discreetly bellicose, which nags at the defenses of the innocent. Brooks’s observational schtick is disarmingly effective— brutal in its truth— and frighteningly accurate in its depiction of a sociopathic boyfriend. Watch it before expires Saturday on Criterion.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman’s new movie presents the horrors of relationship stasis, being tethered to someone you don’t want to be with. Jessie Buckley (on a roll this year with Fargo) plays a woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Half of the film is comprised of the claustrophobic car ride upstate, which she spends calculating the opportunity cost of dating this guy (Jesse Plemons). Later she rabbitholes down future possibilities of their paired life, all of them placid and stultifying strangulations on her independent life and future. Untenable for anyone, but the acute pain is clearly intentioned for a woman in a hetero-normative relationship wherein man molds woman from his imaginary clay. Streaming on Netflix.

MORE THOUGHTS AHEAD WITH SPOILERS. I find Kaufman’s sophomore directorial effort narrow yet sprawling (not unlike Synecdoche, New York). Taking a simple premise, Kaufman presents it in the most laborious way. To be clear, this isn’t a clever convolution that starts out on the ground floor and ends 2,000 feet up with a worthwhile bird’s eye view of the journey. The easiest conclusion of the film, which is adapted from a book, is the right one: the woman is an amalgam and a fake, projected desire and unattainable ideal, the man a delusional jerk who shapes and forms her. But even as a figment she eludes him — her self-actualization coincides with the audience’s and it does little to empower her. Her agency doesn’t sharpen her character as triumphant woman as much as it cement his relational insecurity and status as a grade-A loser. The actors dance in the cage of Kaufman’s creative doom for an audience of one.

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