Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Old-Fashioned Cooking

That post on umami, for some reason, got me thinking about Ancient Roman cuisine. Did you ever wonder what they ate in Ancient Rome? Let's discuss.

What they didn't eat

First off, when you think about food in Ancient Rome (or Medieval Europe for that matter), it's important to keep in mind the many products we take for granted today that would have been unknown to them. Not only things like coffee, chocolate, bananas and corn but also tomatoes, potatoes, chilis and cane sugar -- all of these are indigenous to the Americas and would not be introduced to the Old World for centuries.


The staple of the Roman diet was wheat (remember that in the first century BC they started doling out free grain to the poor masses in the city of Rome). In the early days of the Republic, the Romans subsisted on barley and emmer grown on Italian soil. Emmer is one of the most ancient forms of cultivated wheat: compared to modern wheats it's low yield, it's a pain in the neck to remove the grain from it's hull, and it's less suitable for making leavened bread. On the other hand, emmer is flavorful, relatively high in protein and it grows well in poor soil. Today, emmer is only cultivated in a few parts of the world, but it's popularity is on the rise due to interest in different types of whole grains. In Italy, emmer is called farro and it is often encountered in Tuscan cuisine. Early Romans probably made a porridge out of emmer (maybe mixed with other grains like barley or with legumes like lentils or chickpeas) which could be eaten alone or with whatever other food was available.

By the Imperial age, Romans were importing most of their wheat from overseas provinces such as Egypt. Most of this was durum wheat (hard wheat), which is what most pasta is made out of today. This wheat was used to make bread (which could be dipped in olive oil, honey, wine, whatever...), pancakes which could be eaten with honey and dates (doesn't sound too bad), and other pastries. Poor citizens who lived in tenements might have baked their bread in communal ovens, and by the Late Republic there were also commercial bakeries that sold pre-made baked goods. One simple Roman pastry dish was globuli which were balls of cheese curd and semolina (durum flour) fried in olive oil and probably seasoned with honey. The Romans also made a type of proto-lasagna called laganum (one of the main things that distinguishes this from modern pasta is that it is fried rather than boiled). There is a restaurant in the modern city of Pompei (not far from the ruins) called Il Principe where they actually serve laganum and other Ancient Roman dishes.


Eating meat was something of a luxury in Ancient Rome: poorer Romans probably ate very little meat whereas during the decadent late Republic/High Roman Empire the wealthy might impress their guests by serving exotic animals such as peacocks, flamingos, giraffe, lions and who-knows-what-else at their feasts. Beef was rarely eaten since cattle were important work animals, and the majority of beef available for consumption probably came from animals sacrificed in religious ceremonies (the same may apply to lamb). Chickens were also important for production, and thus you were more likely to find other poultry like ducks and geese (raised for their meat) and game birds at the table. The Romans even knew how to make fois gras. Pork, on the other hand, was probably the most common type of meat found in Ancient Rome: the Romans raised pigs and hunted wild boar.

Fish, oysters and other seafood were well liked, but they were probably hard to come by at any distance from the seaside due to issues preserving food. Fish were likely transported live to large cities like Rome where they were sold out of tanks in the marketplace (no doubt at a high price). The Romans also experimented with farming their own fish in private and commercial fisheries (including "goatfish" or red mullets which were held in especially high regard).

The Romans also bred snails (escargot) and rabbits for food, but by far the weirdest animal which they ate regularly and raised for its meat was the edible dormouse (which has a bushy tail and looks more like a squirrel than a mouse). Romans loved their dormice, and one of the most frequently cited recipes in the Apicius cookbook (available from Amazon) is for dormouse stuffed with ground pork and dormouse meat, chopped nuts and breadcrumbs and spiced with salt, pepper, silphium (see spice section below) and broth. Interestingly enough, wild dormice are still hunted in southern Slovenia where they are a seasonal delicacy.


The Romans loved to flavor their food with different spices and seasonings. We all know that salt was a minor luxury in Ancient Rome: the Romans harvested sea salt and had rock salt mines where slaves and convicted criminals toiled. Rome also imported spices from distant lands to feed her people's frenzy for flavah. A surprisingly large number of the spices we are familiar with today could be found in a well-stocked Roman kitchen (although perhaps in a slightly different form): they had black pepper, garlic, parsley, mint, dill, sage, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, saffron, basil, clove, cardamon, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, fennel, celery seed, anis, caraway, sesame seed, poppy.

Even more interesting are the herbs and spices listed in Apicius' recipes that are not widley used today. Here's a list of some of these:

Silphium: one of the Roman's favorite herbs, silphium grew wild in Northern Libya around the city of Cyrene (founded as a Greek colony in the 7th century BC). Silphium was such an important local export that it was featured on the city's coins. Unfortunately, by the late Roman Empire the herb had gone extinct, presumably due to overharvesting and/or overgrazing (it couldn't be domesticated, apparently). Most people's best guess is that silphium was related to the giant fennel plant. The Greeks and Romans liked to use a resin obtained from the plant in their cooking, and after silphium went the way that the dodo later would, they substituted the Indian asafoetida (see below) although everyone agreed it wasn't as good. This is maybe our only clue as to what sillphium tasted like. The ancients also believed the herb had contraceptive properties (all the more reason to eat up!).

Asafoetida (aka Devil's Dung): the gross-out English name comes from the strong, noxious odor given off by the fresh plant which is remotely similar to overripe garlic. Used in cooking, however, asafoetida must be much more appetising. It was popular not only in the Roman world but also in Medieval Europe and, althought it's since fallen by the wayside in Western cooking, it is still widely used today in India and Central Asia. Asafoetida is an alternative to garlic or onion: its resin (used by the Romans in place of silphium) is stronger and more pungent than the powdered form.

Long Pepper: often used by the Romans in place of black pepper, long pepper is a close relative with a similar flavor only with a bit of a spicy kick. Long Pepper remained popular in Europe until the arrival of chili peppers.

Rue: an intensely bitter herb whose use in cooking has mostly fallen out of favor. Rue was common in Roman cuisine, used for example in the rustic dish moretum which was a spread made out of fresh garlic, aged cheese (probably "pecorino" made from sheep's milk) and different herbs. Today rue is most widely used in Ethiopia.

Spikenard/Fleabane: an herb with a pleasant fragrance and an aromatic, bitter, astringent taste which is related to valerian (an herbal sedative). In later days it seems to have been more commonly used for perfumes and incense and as a herbal remedy.

Savory: an herb still used in European cuisine today, especially to flavor bean dishes. Savory is similar to thyme and to the Indian spice ajwain. It is often included in herbes de provence.

Lovage: an herb still found in Southern and Central European cooking. It is aromatic and works well for pickling (like dill) and in beef stock and potato dishes.

Fenugreek: largely abandoned in Western cooking, where some characterize its flavor as bitter and "goaty," fenugreek is still used in countries like Iran and India.

Pennyroyal: a bitter, pungent and less agreeable member of the mint family, pennyroyal is also somewhat toxic and has been used as an abortifacient.

The Romans had some weird ideas about how to flavor their food. A lot of dishes were served in a syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce. The sweet element could be comprised of honey, fig syrup, or a grape juice/sweet wine reduction, and the sour component was probably vinegar. Add to that some garum (see below, some people believe that brine also featured heavily in Roman cooking) and some of those bitter herbs and funky spices and you have a dish that modern gourmets would likely find inedible.

A good example of this is the sauce for boiled or roasted game found in Apicius which calls for "8 scruples of pepper, rue, lovage, celery seed, juniper, thyme, dry mint; 6 scruples of fleabane; pulverize, put together in a vessel with sufficient honey and use with vinegar and garum." There is a lot going on in that sauce. Two possible explanations for why the Romans cooked like this are that (a) it was considered a mark of refinement among the upper classes to serve dishes that were so heavily seasoned as to disguise the natural flavor of the meat and (b) heavy sauces and spices could cover up the fact that meat was beginning to turn.

Garum was one of the Romans' favorite condiments, and it is by far the most misunderstood mainstay of the Roman pantry. It is made from fermented fish (usually anchovies or mackerel). When I first heard about garum in high school or college I remember being like "eww, gross." But when I looked it up more recently -- curious about whether anyone's ever tried to recreate it and maybe wanting to try it out myself -- I discovered that garum is basically the same thing as Southeast Asian fish sauce (something I have in my pantry anyway). Much like soy sauce, fish sauce is splashed into food in order to add salt and umami to a dish (now we see the connection to the umami post!), but I'd say it has a much richer flavor profile. On its own it does have a slightly funky odor, but this quickly disappears onces its stirred into a pot of curry or a bowl of soup. Meanwhile Worcestshire sauce, which also contains anchovies, is often pointed to as garum's successor in Anglo-American cuisine.


The Romans drank a lot of wine, but they were also wusses about it: they normally diluted their wine with water or flavored it with honey (muslum, traditionally served as an aperitif and extremely popular) or a mixture of honey and spices (conditum). Poor Romans could have gotten drunk on a mixture of water and crappy wine that was basically a step away from vinegar: I guess this was the ancient equivalent of Mad Dog or Thunderbird.

They had both red and white wine in Rome; normally the wine came out cloudy and would be strained. Many advances in the art of viticulture were made during this time: wine was transported and preserved in clay jugs where pitch, resin, saltwater and olive oil were among the substances employed to prolong freshness (flavoring could also be added to mask the fact that wine had past its prime). Fine wines were aged in large jugs sealed with cork and cement. The Romans also planted vineyards throughout their empire introducing varieties of grapes to Spain, Southern France and even Britain.

Aged wines tended to fetch a higher price, and the most highly-prized variety was the full-bodied Falerno which was grown in the mountains between Rome and Naples (where wine is still produced today). Wine was the strongest drink around in Roman times as the process for distilling liquors would not be discovered in Europe until the 1200s.

Images: fresco of "still life with eggs and thrushes" taken from Villa Giulia Felice in Pompeii and Pompeian fresco depicting the goddess Flora are both on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy; photo of Slovenian dormouse dish by Borut Peterlin found on; photo of silver didrachym from Cyrene c.300 BC located at Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow Scotland found at scran website; image of garum mosaic from the house of A. Umricius Scaurus in Pompeii found on times online; wine servers mosaic from Roman Tunisia found on tunisia online.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Umami: In Search of the Fifth Flavor

I think I can remember in grade school learning how there are four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. (Incidentally, there was a girl I went to college with whom I called "Salty" -- that might sound obscene, but it's not. Someone gave her that nickname for "throwing salt in people's game." Now I guess it just sounds stupid. Anyway...) I even remember seeing a little diagram that showed where the tastebuds that detected these different flavors were located on your tongue. It turns out that like so much we learned in school (glass is a liquid, really?!) that diagram was bullshit. There are taste receptors all over your tongue that can detect any of the tastes; just try putting some salt on the tip of your tongue where the sweet tastebuds are supposed to congregate.

Also, everybody now agrees that there is a fifth taste called "umami." Umami's been around for awhile: I think I first read about it around 5 years ago. I started thinking about umami again earlier this month after I mentioned it to Amanda and realized that I still wasn't really sure what this taste sensation is like. So I decided to write a blog post and to try and get a better idea what umami is all about. I also wanted to find some examples of foods which illustrate this elusive fifth element of taste.

The Four Classic Tastes

Before we start on our quest to uncover the secret of umami, maybe we'd better make sure we have a good grasp on the four classic tastes. Sweet and salty are no-brainers -- sugar makes food sweet and salt makes foods salty --, but how clear are we on the difference between sour and bitter?

Sour is the flavor that characterizes those ingredients which chefs say add acid to a dish such as lemon and vinegar. The sour tang is what makes greek yogurt (and skyr) taste different from regular ole Dannon/Danone yogurt; it is also what distinguishes buffalo mozzarella from cow-milk mozzarella. The sour taste sensation is basically your tongue detecting something acidic (i.e. something with a PH level below 7.0) in the food you're eating such as citric acid, a chemical compound present in citrus fruit. Citric acid levels are much higher in lemons and limes than they are in oranges, tangerines and grapefruit which explain why they are more sour. Meanwhile, the acid in vinegar is called acetic acid (acetum is the Latin word for vinegar. In Italian the word is aceto.).

The bitter taste, on the other hand, is your tongue detecting some other kind of chemical in the food you're eating. Bitter foods include a lot of greens which are used in Italian cuisine such as dandelion greens, escarole, broccoli rabe (one of my mom's favorite foods) and what we in the States call arugula (the Brits call it "rocket" and in Italian it's usually called "rucola"). Also olives and brussel sprouts. Bitter drinks include coffee and tonic water (it's the quinine that makes tonic water so bitter). Scientists say that our tongues' bitter taste receptors are the most sensitive. The evolutionary reason for this, and for why most people find overly bitter foods unpleasant, is because many toxic substances trigger this taste sensation. Another interesting fact is that there are a couple of chemicals which trigger a bitter taste sensation for some people and not others. These people are sometimes called "supertasters."

The Discovery of Umami

The story of umami begins in 1908 at Tokyo Imperial University. There a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was studying dashi, the kelp broth which is a basic ingredient in Japanese cooking, and he managed to isolate glutamate (i.e. glumatic acid) as the chemical which gave it its characteristic flavor which he dubbed "umami" (旨味) after "umai" (うまい) which means something like "delicious" or "savory" in Japanese. Ikeda went on to find that glutamate was also present in other savory foods, and in 1912 he presented his findings to the International Conference of Applied Chemistry in Washington, DC stating that “those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter…."

After this it was discovered that other chemicals such as guanylate which is found in shitake mushrooms and inosinate found in bonito (dried fish) flakes were also associated with the umami taste. More recently, in the '70s and '80s, studies by scientists in other countries have confirmed that umami triggers a distinct neurological response from the other tastes (like saltiness) and that the human tongue has seperate umami taste receptors. Since then, awareness of "umami" as the fifth taste has spread in the culinary world. It was even featured in one of the challenges on this season's Top Chef where one of the cheftestants helpfully defined it as "you know... it's umami... it's the fifth flavor." Thanks for clearing that up!

The Taste of Umami

So that's all great but what does umami actually taste like? Some attempts to translate the term into English have yielded results such as savoriness, meatiness, heartiness and brothiness. As these words suggest, umami is actually much subtler and harder to pin down that sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Further complicating the picture is the fact that umami foods are often salty as well, so you need to try to put the saltiness aside and focus on what else is there. That said, in order to really understand the umami taste sensation I think we need to discuss (and eat) some different foods which are rich in umami.

Foods Rich in Umami

Broths usually have an umami taste whether we're talking about beef broth or vegetable broth. In addition to Japanese style soups made with kombu kelp, shitake mushrooms or bonito flakes, french onion soup is also very umami.

A lot of dried and fermented foods also tend to have a strong umami taste. Marmite/vegemite, the yeast extract spread "enjoyed" by Britons and Australians, is very umami (in addition to being very salty) as is Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce (made from fermented anchovies), soy sauce and oyster sauce. Fresh oysters and shitake and enoki mushrooms contain umami flavors which are intensified when they're fermented or dried. Other umami foods include nori seaweed (encountered in sushi rolls and seaweed salads), caviar and salmon roe, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes (that's why they call them "beefy").

The food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate) is the most common spice used to enhance foods' umami taste.  MSG gets a bad rap for being artificial and for its unappetizing, chemical name, but its actually produced by fermenting carbohydrates.  A lot of people also claim they have a vague allergic reaction to MSG, e.g. that it gives them a headache, that it makes their fingers feel puffy or numb, or that it causes asthma-like symptoms.  I'm not 100% anti-MSG, but one time when I was at the supermarket with Nicole I found one of those giant spice containers (like you might get garlic powder or red pepper flakes in) filled with MSG and we were both like "Gross! Who would buy that?"   

Primal Strips Meatless Jerky

Speaking of umami... I noticed last week that at the healthy food/juice place where I like to get lunch (the Juice Joint Cafe of Vermont Avenue) they started selling these vegan jerky strips. I was kind of intrigued by these and the flavors that stood out were Thai Peanut with Seitan and Hot & Spicy Shitake Mushroom. So yesterday I decided I was going to go for it and try one. I was actually leaning towards the Thai Peanut but Nicole (perhaps the only other person I know who would be intrigued by the prospect of vegan jerky strips) convinced me to go for the Hot & Spicy Shitake Mushroom ("I do love hot & spicy," I remember typing). So anyway I bought some with lunch and ripped into it later that afternoon.

The taste was... interesting. I remember thinking "wow that's umami!" Shitake mushrooms and soy sauce are ingredients #1 and 3, respectively. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I liked it: the flavor is complex, and I can't say whether I might grow to enjoy it (this happens to me all the time. I have ambiguous feelings about some new food, but then later I start to think about it, and then to sort of crave it, and then I try it again and pronounce that I love it. I'm weird, I know.) or maybe I'll end up deciding that it's just nasty. Next time I'm going to try the thai peanut; I bet that will be less complicated.


So I feel like I have a bit of a better idea what umami is all about now. I still don't really know how to describe it -- calling it meaty or brothy is really just saying that meats and broths have this taste, I guess savory is slightly more evocative. I do feel, however, even though my concept of umami is fuzzy that I enjoy and actively seek out foods which have this taste. If you want to go on your own quest to figure out the essence of umami I'd recommend you try something like vegemite, an authentic Japanese soup (like miso soup) with a dashi base and/or with shitake or enoki mushrooms, or maybe a good French onion soup. If you can find it and you're adventurous you can even try that "interesting" Primal Strips Hot & Spicy Shitake Mushroom jerky and let me know what you think.

For additional information, I direct you to the Umami Information Center.

Images: Umami map taken from umami information center; dashi photograph found on humble bean blog; marmite photo; marmite photograph taken from ryansgoblog; hot & spicy jerky photo taken from .

Monday, October 19, 2009

Scientists weigh in on inbred Spanish royals

Remember my series of posts on inbreeding earlier this year? What's that? You didn't read those? Well, anyway a study was published this spring which adds scientific support to the theory that the decline and fall of Spain's Habsburg dynasty was due to excessive inbreeding. This hypothesis, along with the suggestion that King Carlos II's varied health problems were due to inbreeding depression, has long been espoused by historians, but this is the first time that the claims have been analyzed based on genetic data.

In April, the online scientific/medical journal PLoS One published a paper submitted by three biologists from La Coruña, Spain (in Galicia) entitled "The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty."  Scientists first reconstructed a genealogy of the Spanish Habsburgs, including 3,000 individuals across 16 generations, in order to determine the inbreeding coefficient for each of the Habsburg Kings of Spain. Next, they looked at the incidence of late-term miscarriage, stillbirth and infant/childhood mortality (defined here as death before the age of 10) in the family between 1527 and 1661. Finally, the biologists catalogue Carlos II's physical and mental shortcomings and hypothesize that these might have been due to his affliction with two rare genetic diseases.

How inbred were they?

9 out of the 11 marriages entered into by the Habsburg kings were marriages between close relatives (third cousins or closer): these include two uncle-niece marriages, one double first cousin marriage, and one first cousin marriage. How inbred an individual is can be measured by calculating his "inbreeding coefficient," which is defined as the probability of a zygote obtaining identical copies of the same gene because its parents are related. The inbreeding coefficient of the kings studied ranges from .025 for Philip I (Felipe el hermoso, 1478-1506), the dynasty's founder, to .254 for Carlos II (1661-1700), the last Habsburg King of Spain.

This means that Carlos II's inbreeding coefficient is actually HIGHER than that for the offspring of a parent-child or brother-sister union (.25), and it would mean that there was at least a 25.4% chance of Carlos II having received identical copies of any given gene from each parent. Several other members of the family also had inbreeding coefficients over .20 including King Philip III (1578-1621) and Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias (1545-1568), the child of Philip II and his first wife Maria Manuela of Portugal. Don Carlos had his own physical and psychological complaints which might be attributable to inbreeding.

The kings' average inbreeding coefficient was .129 (higher than the coefficient for the offspring of uncle-niece or half-brother/half-sister unions). How is this possible? The paper explains that these high coefficients were as much due to ancestral inbreeding among multiple remote ancestors as they were to unions between close relatives among an individual's parents and grandparents. Thus, one has to go back 10 or more generations in order to get a complete picture of how inbred these people were.

Infant mortality rate

Between 1527 (the year of Philip II's birth) and 1661 (the year of Carlos II's birth) the Habsburg kings and queens produced 34 children, of whom 10 died before completing their 1st year and 17 (50%) died before their tenth birthday. This is significantly higher than the 20% infant mortality rate observed in Spanish villages around this time. The latter statistic, moreover, includes poorer families whose children were adversely affected by malnutrition or limited access to medical treatment, whereas these factors would not have been an issue for the royal family.

The scientists also examined a separate set of data: looking at the pregnancies recorded by historical sources in 8 marriages (the marriages of the Spanish kings from Ferdinand and Isabella up to the two marriages of Carlos II's father Philip IV, excluding the first two marriages of Philip II that produced only one child between them). Out of 51 reported pregnancies, 5 ended in late-term miscarriage or stillbirth, 6 produced babies who died within a month, 14 more produced children who died before age 10, and 26 children who survived infancy. When statistically analyzing this data together with inbreeding coefficients, the study found a significant correlation between the inbreeding coefficient and deaths before the age of 10. This would suggest that excessive inbreeding may have had a negative effect on infant mortality in the families of the Habsburg Kings of Spain. Further bolstering this theory are other studies which show a correlation between infant mortality and unions between closely related individuals (e.g. first cousins).

This makes me think of what I found out about Carlos II's sister Margarita Teresa (1651-1673) when researching the first post. The infanta, who married her uncle Leopold I and who died at the age of 21, had four children: three who died before the age of 2 and one daughter Maria Antonia (1669-1692) who lived to be 23. None of Maria Antonia's three children with her husband Maximillian Emanuel of Bavaria survived to adulthood.

What was wrong with Carlos II?

The paper did a good job of cataloging Carlos' symptoms based on historical sources. We're told Carlos II was a "weak breast-fed baby" and that he had a disproportionately large head. He didn't manage to speak until age 4 or to walk until age 8, and he grew up to be short, weak and thin. The biologists characterize his personality as "abulic" (apparently meaning that he was uninterested in his environment and apathetic). As for reproductive problems, we all know Carlos II had no offspring: his first wife complained of premature ejaculation and his second said he was impotent. Carlos also suffered from occasional hematuria (blood in urine) and gastro-intestinal problems (diarrhea, vomiting). At 30, we're told he looked prematurely old and that parts of his lower body and face were swollen from edema. In later life, Carlos could barely stand on his own and he was afflicted with hallucinations and convulsions. He died at the age of 39 after an illness characterized by fever, abdominal pain, breathing difficulty and coma.

The possible explanation for Carlos' problems offered in the paper is that he may have suffered from two rare conditions: combined pituitary hormone deficiency (CPHD) and distal renal tubular acidosis (dRTA). CPHD refers to impaired production of growth hormone and other hormones produced by the anterior pituitary gland. It is associated with short stature, hypotonia (low muscle tone), apathetic personality, gastrointestinal problems, and infertility/impotence. The condition is also exacerbated by physical stress which can result in abdominal pain and fever. dRTA, on the other hand, is the condition which results when the kidneys are not removing acid from the blood normally. Symptoms include muscular weakness, rickets, hematuria and a disproportionately large head.

It is only a hypothesis that Carlos II suffered from these two conditions, and the paper's authors are careful to point out that both disorders can be caused by environmental factors as well as genetics. Moreover, in a comment on the paper, a group of doctors dispute the claim that Carlos II suffered from dRTA as unlikely. Nevertheless, Carlos' high inbreeding coefficient makes it much more likely that he may have inherited a recessive genetic disorder, rarely occurring in the population as a whole. In order to inherit a recessive genetic disorder one must receive "bad copies" of the same gene from both parents, and as we said above Carlos' inbreeding coefficient tell us that he had a 25.4% chance of receiving identical copies from both parents for any given gene. What's more, another study shows that genetic homozygosity (i.e. possessing two identical forms of the same gene) for related individuals is often even greater than their pedigree suggests (probably because unrelated or distantly related individuals in the gene pool also have identical copies of the same gene sometimes). This would make the chances even greater.


So, to sum up: the Habsburg Kings of Spain became much more inbred than the population as a whole, and their families were affected by an unusually high infant mortality rate (50% of their children died before age 10). A statistical analysis in this and other studies shows a significant correlation between inbreeding and infant mortality. Thus, one could theorize that the high incidence of inbreeding adversely impacted the Habsburg children's chances of surviving to adulthood.

Spain's last Habsburg king, Carlos II, was even more inbred than the child of a brother-sister union, and thus his chances of having inherited a recessive genetic disorder were greatly increased. He was also mentally and physically handicapped, and he died childless at age 39. Based on his symptoms as recorded by historians, scientists hypothesize that he may have suffered from something like combined pituitary hormone deficiency and/or distal renal tubular acidosis -- two rare conditions sometimes caused by inherited genetic defects.
Now I would really like to see scientists study this man's DNA to better determine how homozygous his genes were and what genetic conditions he may have suffered from.

Images: Portrait of  Don Carlos by Alonso Sánchez Coello and portrait of Margarita Teresa by Jan Thomas van Ieperen both on display at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and both found on wikipedia.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Alexander McQueen

I've already sent this link to a few people so I figured that's reason enough to share it on the ole blog. Anyway on this site Jezebel, which is kind of like Gawker but geared towards young women with a post-feminist sensibility, they posted a bunch of photographs from Alexander McQueen's fashion show in Paris earlier this month. The show had a sort of futuristic/space theme, and everything looks really artistic and innovative. At the same time, some of the dresses and stuff are borderline someone-could-actually-get-away-with-wearing- them. It's all women's fashion so obviously I'd have no reason to be buying any of this stuff (even in my rich fantasy life where money is no object), but sometimes I enjoy just looking at fashion shows and photography like this and being like "ooh pretty." This is probably an outlying symptom of being a culture junkie.  If you're interested in seeing more there's a video and stuff on Alexander McQueen's website.

Coincidentally, I did buy this awesome paisley dress shirt not too long ago from that online discount clothing site (want to join?), which -- it turns out -- is also by Alexander McQueen. Here's a photo that was taken when some of the H-town girls were visiting DC. (See that? I knew I could find a way to make this post all about me).  I'm not super pleased with my squinty, pudgy face in the photo but anyways you can kind of see the shirt... and also the new pair of glasses I bought in July.

SONG I'M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW: Harrison Schaaf - Karate (I Make It Rain) ft. Lil Wayne.

Images: photo from Alexander McQueen's spring 2010 fashion show taken on October 3, 2009 in Paris by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images and found on Jezebel.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland

Last week I expressed reservations about Terry Gilliam's new movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But there is another film, coming out next year, whose trailer has me even more troubled -- Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

My initial reaction was that this version of Alice is unrecognizable. Judging by the trailer, the movie's atmosphere is going to be very dark and there will be little to none of the air of the sunny English garden which we usually associate with Alice. These visual clues are reinforced by the voiceover's assertion that this Wonderland is "a land full of wonder, mystery and danger." I am all for bringing a new twist to an old classic, but the trailer also makes the movie look like the million other children's fantasy movies that have come out in the last 5 years (Harry Potter, the Golden Compass, the Chronicles of Narnia...). Plus they seem to have gone heavy on the CGI, and the movie is going to be released in 3-D. Oh dear, oh dear, so much to discuss...

Tim Burton

I'm a fan of what Tim Burton does, but most of his recent films didn't really do it for me. His trademark gothic style worked great in movies like Beetlejuice (my absolute favorite movie when I was 13yo), Edward Scissorhands and Batman, but I think it's starting to get stale. And if we look at his attempts at adapting and reimagining familiar stories the track record isn't good. Sleepy Hollow was almost wholly without merit -- as you would expect when people take a short story and stretch it out into a cookie cutter feature-length film. Planet of the Apes I didn't see, but it looks bizarre and totally different from the original (like aren't there apemen in battle armor?). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory just begged for comparison with the beloved musical version of Willy Wonka from the '70s, and it was clearly the inferior of the two. I also haven't seen Sweeney Todd yet, but it looked like it was really dark and gloomy. Nicole summed up my feelings pretty well a while back in her open letter to Tim Burton: branch out, stop doing the same tired ole thing, and why you gotta put Johnny and Hel-Hel in all your films? It's no coincidence that my favorite later Tim Burton film -- possibly my favorite of all his films -- was the marvellous Big Fish which was in many ways a departure. Big Fish had some gothic and fantasy elements but this was counter-balanced by sunshine and a strong basis (physical and emotional) in reality.

Tim Burton speaks about Alice

Burton first discussed the Alice project in depth in an interview a year ago. This is what he had to say:

It's a funny project. The story is obviously a classic with iconic images and ideas and thoughts. But with all the movie versions, well, I've just never seen one that really had any impact to me. It's always just a series of weird events. Every character is strange and she's just kind of wandering through all of the encounters as just a sort of observer. The goal is to try to make it an engaging movie where you get some of the psychology and kind of bring a freshness but also keep the classic nature of 'Alice.'

Tim specifically refers to the 1951 Disney cartoon which a lot of us are familiar with. Most people would agree that this wasn't the greatest: the movie was kind of Fantasia lite -- a series of diverting images and scenes lacking the artistry and beauty of the 1940 film, and the Alice story is rendered in a bland way -- half-Americanized and wiping away any Victorian elements which modern children wouldn't understand.

The Alice books

The two Alice books (Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking GlassThrough the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There) are an odd pair of classics. Both really do lack an overarching plot beyond some vague references to Alice trying to get home or maybe trying to reach the eighth square on the chessboard where pawns become queens. Alice really does just wander around having a series of adventures and meeting a line-up of muppety oddballs who converse and interact with her before they part ways. There's not much in the way of conflict or danger (even the Queen of Hearts, who hastily ordered executions for the slightest offenses with an "off with his head!", is quickly revealed to be all bark and no bite), and one can definitely detect a faint whiff of the stuffy Victorian nursery. The books' endings are particularly anti-climactic as Alice just suddenly awakens to discover that it had all been a dream.

So then why are these books still read and loved by so many people? Well, despite their shortcomings as novels (if one would even call them novels), Alice's adventures are very entertaining. Lewis Carroll's Wonderland characters are all animated with his special brand of nonsense which involves word play, the misapplication of rules of logic, and the perversion of the day's manners and etiquette. There are plenty of scenes, as well as dialogue ("Why is a raven like a writing desk?") and poems (often parodies of sappy children's rhymes that are now long forgotten) which stick in your mind. Many of the characters come off as pompous adults attempting to teach the little girl lessons, but rather than giving sound moral instruction it's usually confusing, dubious and comical.

The Alice books were clearly written to entertain children (there's a tameness and primness to the work which distinguishes it from the more grizzly and disturbing tales told to children in previous centuries), but they don't really talk down to children. They're fast-paced, and re-reading them is always enjoyable and rewarding as you're bound to pick up on some references you missed when you were younger. For instance, when Alice meets the mouse in the pool of tears towards the beginning of Wonderland, she addresses him as "O Mouse" using the vocative case as glimpsed in her brother's Latin Grammar. When the mouse doesn't seem to understand her, she toys with the idea that he must be a French mouse that came over with William the Conqueror because although she knows her history lessons her concept of time and how long ago things took place is fuzzy.

These examples also show us another of books' high points -- Lewis Carroll's rendering of Alice from a child development perspective. Alice is intelligent and well-educated but she is also only 7 1/2, so it makes sense that she would misapply things half-remembered from her lessons and that there would be gaps in her knowledge when it came to concepts that can only be mastered through experience (understanding how long ago historical events took place relatively speaking is a particularly hard idea for children to grasp).

Outlook on Tim Burton's Alice

Having said all this, I understand what Tim Burton was saying about the difficulty of turning the Alice books into an engaging movie. I do believe that, often, in order to make a good adaptation, a director has to have the courage to depart from the source material and to make his own decisions (Stanley Kubrick's movies The Shining, Lolita and A Clockwork Orange are good examples of this). I'm just afraid that, here, Tim Burton might have abandoned a lot of the charm and intelligent humor of the books and replaced it with something less interesting and original. The trailer makes me worry that rather than giving us a twisted version of the Alice story, Burton has just stolen familiar characters and scenes from the books and inserted them into a wholly different (and probably inferior) storyline.

One thing that is clear from the trailer is that the filmmakers used a lot of CGI in order to combine live action and animation. Just look at Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts who is given surreal proportions (now that I think of it, the image is vaguely reminiscent of Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). CGI has its place, but I think that too much of it can ruin a movie. All of the visuals on screen have to mesh well together, and one has to make sure computer animation doesn't distance the audience from the film's characters and story. Plus, this can be a bad sign because an abundance of CGI is often used to try and cover up a weak storyline.

As for the 3-D IMAX release (another warning sign that a movie might be all flashy visuals and no substance), I have actually never seen a movie like this before (other than, like, the movie in the Newseum). I think the technology doesn't work well for people like me who wear glasses. But, beyond that, is this new 3-D just a gimmick? Does it detract from the movie as art?

My favorite Alice adaption

I have fond memories of watching (and re-watching over and over again) the Alice in Wonderland TV-movie that came out in 1985. This was a musical which featured original songs and a cast filled with celebrities: Sherman Helmsley as the Mouse; Sammy Davis, Jr. as the Caterpillar; Telly Sevalas as the Cheshire Cat; Carol Channing as the White Queen; Shelley Winters as the Dodo....

This is probably the most faithful screen adaptation of the Alice books, and since -- as we said above -- a lot of the action consists of Alice meeting an assortment of off-kilter characters it made sense for them to turn it into a big production allowing a huge cast of entertainers to make an appearance and do their thing. From what I remember, the songs were pretty catchy, and they often came from the poems recited in the book such as "You are old, Father William" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter." This was an excellent way of including these in a movie without putting everyone to sleep. There's even some underlying themes about growing up and facing your fears which they threw in so as to give Alice a story arc.


The 1985 Alice movie is available on DVD. And if you're looking for a copy of the Alice books I would suggest either the Annotated Alice (which includes footnotes explaining all of Lewis Carroll's various allusions, neologisms, etc.) or perhaps a set featuring the illustrations of Mervyn Peake which are far more interesting than the Tenniel illustrations from the first edition which were all more familiar with (damn those are out of print now? I remember giving one as a Christmas gift when I was in Nola).

Another Alice related posts:  Marilyn Manson Goes Down the Rabbit Hole

Images: Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen taken from; Mervyn Peake illustration of Alice found on Tea, Sympathy and Perfume, Alice with Red Queen found on

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let's talk Halloween costumes

October is almost half over so the time to start getting your Halloween costume together has come. Last week I read this great post on the Awl with some good costume suggestions. My favorite of these has to be the "Obama Rally 'Tree of Life' Asshole." The writer also reminds us that when you wait until the last minute you usually end up with a subpar costume, and he says that one of the marks of a good Halloween costume is that people won't mistake you for something else. 

This got me thinking about some of my previous Halloween costumes. Allow me to share...

Last year I dressed up as Super Mario. I remember I couldn't get my hands on a pair of white gloves in time. Also, I was afraid people might think I was supposed to be a train engineer, but I guess I didn't need to worry since I look like Mario all the time anyway. Here's a photo...

I think it was my first Halloween after I settled in Northern Virgina that I went out with Des and her husband and posse. That year I wore a Father Guido Sarducci-style priest outfit (the kind that features a black sombrero). I probably get points off for creativity since I started with a store bought costume but then I tricked it out with some accessories such as a set of rosary beads and a holy water bottle whose incorporation here was undoubtedly sacriligeous. I remember some -- unobservant and probably none too bright -- school-aged kids on the Metro thought I was supposed to be "a jew" but that was clearly not the case because I had a giant cross hanging around my neck. But hey, who's to say I wont branch out and malign other religions on a future Halloween?

My last year in New Orleans, when I shared an apartment on Saint Charles Ave with Amanda, we had a Halloween party. I dressed as Pai Mei, the old kung fu master from Kill Bill. That costume consisted of a worn, off-white robe that i got from Nicole (she even sewed up a hole for me. thanks!) and this white haired granny wig that we had to like undo and restyle to approximate Pai Mei's impressive mein. I remember it got super frizzy and out of control looking fairly quickly. We (Amanda and Nicole were both very instrumental in helping to put this costume together) also took a bit of the hair and made it into bushy eyebrows and a long fu manchu style beard which we fixed to my face with spirit gum or something that I guess we also picked up from the costume shop. It was a pretty cheap, improvised costume but some people did actually recognize me as Pai Mei, which I think is kind of remarkable seeing as how he was a minor character in a movie that I feel a lot of people hadn't even seen. That was a pretty fun party; I think the best part is how after Amanda had partied herself out and gone to bed some people she worked with showed up and proceeded to carve the decorative pumpkins on our balcony. Good times. Sadly I have no photographic evidence that any of this ever happened.

Another memorable Halloween outing took place in my sophmore year of college. That year I tried to throw together a costume at the last minute, and I ended up going as "a shepherd" (although many a drunken reveler felt that I was supposed to be Jesus or possibly Moses). I THINK that costume consisted of a terry cloth robe (another borrowed item if I'm not mistaken), a pillowcase fixed to my head with a piece of string keffiyah style (I am sad to say that after that night I think this pillowcase was laundered and put back to its intended use -- dorm life, you know), and a big stick that Lee had at his parent's house for some reason. This was the infamous Halloween night where we all split up and had our own unfortunate misadventure in the French Quarter: maybe some people almost came to blows, someone else got kicked out of krystal burger for passing out at the counter, someone else fell backwards and hit their head but arose unharmed do to the magical effects of alcohol.... It was a bad night all round. I really thought there was a photo on facebook of us all smiling in our costumes before we headed out -- blissfully unaware of what the night held in store for us -- but I am mistaken. At any rate, here is a photo of us earlier that night. Apparently, the Tulane choir had a concert that night and we wore tuxedos. I am the little guy with the off-putting beard who looks like Fievel Mousekewitz.

This year I am actually getting together with the college crew to celebrate a spooky Halloween weekend in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Let's hope I didn't jinx our night by invoking the ghost of bad Halloweens past! I'm sure I'll have some photos of me in costume to share when I get back.

LINK OF THE DAY: Scientific American's Top 20 photos of the microscopic world.

BONUS LINK: Garden Gnomes with extremist political affiliations.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Minister of Pedarism

A couple of weeks ago, when I shot off a post about Roman Polanski, I mentioned in passing the public statement made by France's Minister of Culture condemning the arrest. Now it turns out that Frédéric Mitterrand also has a past involving sex with youngsters.

Polanski Statement

After Polanski's arrest on September 26, the French Culture Minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, made a public statement in which he said it was "absolutely horrifying" that the director would be arrested like this in connection with an incident which was now ancient history. He is also quoted in the press as saying "in the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has shown its face."

As I said, if you think of Roman Polanski as one of the most esteemed directors of our time his arrest seems shocking, but it's pretty understandable when you recall the serious allegations against him (drugging and sodomizing a 13yo girl) and the fact that after pleading guilty in 1978 he fled the country and has been evading the long arm of American justice ever since.

The Bad Life

As reported by the BBC, Mitterrand's statements motivated France's opposition to dig up some "ancient history" on the minister himself. In 2005, when Mitterrand was a private citizen, he published an autobiographical novel called La mauvaise vie ("the bad life") in which he wrote about paying for sex with young boys in Thailand.

The book is a wishing well of juicy quotes. For instance, "the profusion of young, very attractive and immediately available boys put me in a state of desire that I no longer needed to restrain or hide." Far from being put off by the sordid details of the sex trade, or sympathising with underpriviliged, young Thai people pushed into prostitution, Mitterrand's narrator found it to be a turn on: "all these rituals of the market for youths, the slave market excited me enormously." Mitterand, who is openly bisexual, claims that he used the word "garcon" loosely and that none of the young men he paid for sex were underage.

Now the attacks are coming from the left and the right. Benoit Hamon, a spokesman for France's Socialist Party, said of Mitterrand in an interview with Reuters "as a minister of culture he has drawn attention to himself by defending a film maker accused of raping a child and he has written a book where he said he took advantage of sexual tourism. To say the least, I find it shocking." Meanwhile the second in command of the far right Front Nationale, Marine Le Pen, read excerpts from the book in a television interview and declared that this affair has left "an indelible stain" on the Sarkozy government. She called for Mitterrand to resign.

The French have a reputation for being very liberal and permissive when it comes to sexual mores: for many of them the case of Mary Kay Letourneau -- the California schoolteacher who was jailed for carrying on an affair with her underaged student -- was a tragic love story. I'm not about to make some "only in France..." comment; I mean does anyone remember the salacious IMs Mark Foley exchanged with that teenager who had served as a congressional page? Still, the French afford their politicians more privacy and they tend to give less weight to reports of sexual misconduct in their personal lives. But if nothing else the Mitterrand affair will definitely cause the Sarkozy government some embarassment: France engages in talks with nations like Thailand about how to help put a stop to sexual tourism and now there's a member of the government who is himself a confessed sexual tourist.

The Mitterrand political dynasty

If Frédéric Mitterrand's last name sounds familiar that's because his uncle François Mitterrand, who was known for comporting himself with the dignity of an Egyptian pharoah, served as France's President from 1981 to 1995. President Mitterrand was head of the Socialist Party, but Frédéric's political inclinations are apparently further to the right: he was a well-known French television personality before Sarkozy asked him to join his government in June of this year.

BBC News recently ran an article on the Mitterrand dynasty. The family is originally from the Cognac region in southwest France, where they made their fortune in the early 20th century producing vinegar. In 1993, President Mitterand's son Jean-Christophe was fined for tax fraud after he received millions of francs in connection with the illegal sale of weapons in Angola. François Mitterrand also had a daughter, Mazarine, by his mistress whose existance was hidden from the public for many years. Mazarine Pingeot is a best-selling author whose novels are laughed at by critics.

Images: brilliant photo of Frederic Mitterrand in 3D glasses taken from sky news blog; photo of la mauvaise vie by AP taken from BBC News

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oh, Terry Gilliam

So there is a new Terry Gilliam movie slated to come out later this year (imdb says it's going to start showing in the US around Christmas) called the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. This movie is already getting some publicity (and it will probably get more closer to its release) due to the fact that the late Heath Ledger stars in it. Conveniently enough, his character like changes his appearance and was being played by a number of different actors anyway (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), so his untimely death didn't present an insurmountable obstacle for the film's production.

Now the trailer looks pretty cool, but I have very mixed feelings about seeing this film. My first (pretty random) thought is that its title reminds me an awful lot of that Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium movie. That was like this bad children's movie about an enchanted toy shop with Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman. I haven't watched it but Nicole has: she assures me it's total crap, but she also urges everyone to check out the very end where Natalie Portman is like magically bringing the toy shop back to life or something and she does this really dorky, goofy, unintentionally-hilarious dance.

My second reservation has to do with Terry Gilliam himself who is the movie's writer/director. Now I am speaking as someone who actually has DVDs of two of his movies at home (and it's not like I have a ton of DVDs), so I feel like that makes me a bigger fan of the Monty Python-turned- filmmaker than most, but I think we all have to come to terms with the fact that most of his movies suck. Let us discuss.


I will admit beforehand that I have not seen any of these movies all the way through, but I am not going to let that stop me from discussing them. My experience with most of them has gone like this: I'm bored one day and [bad Terry Gilliam movie] is on cable. I'm like, "oh this might be fun/cute/interesting to watch." About twenty minutes in I'm like "fuck this!" and change the channel. With most of these movies this has happened to me multiple times. I'd go so far as to say I really want to like these movies, but I just can't watch them. If this doesn't make a movie bad I don't know what does.

Time Bandits: this movie features little people and pirates and Michael Palin... going through time and robbing people in the past? I don't know. I want to say I vaguely remember this movie including some pretty juvenile humor and I am going to say this is a recurring element in Terry Gilliam's oeuvre.

Jabberwocky: I have even less of a clue about this one except to say that Micahel Palin is in it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: I've half-heartedly watched a bit more of this one than most of the movies on the list. The titular aristocrat is an old man who spins outlandish tales about his adventures which feature such characters as like "the fastest man in the world" and Venus, the goddess of love (played by Uma Thurman!). I want to say that Baron Munchausen is actually very typical of Terry Gilliam's movies: it has this sort of romantic, storybook fantasy feel, and yet rather than inspiring the childlike wonder it's clearly aiming for the whole affair is just kind of dusty (as in the movie features lots of dirt and dust) and dull and ultimately depressing.

The Fisher King: This movie stars Robin Williams -- so that's strike one right there. I always forget what this movie is about and am like "oh yeah fisher king, search for the holy grail -- gotcha." But actually the movie takes place in the present day (or, you know, c. 1990) and Robin Williams is a bum who in the end stumbles on the holy grail or turns out to be the fisher king or something. I feel like it's supposed to be "heart warming" which is also not atypical for Terry Gilliam movies. I always get this confused with another dreary Robin Williams film I've never watched all the way through where he's a holocaust survivor, but that's Jakob the Lair (which is apparently a remake of a German film -- who knew).

The Brothers Grimm: Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play a fictitious pair of brothers who share nothing but their name with the dudes who compiled fairytales and wrote about consonant shift, and they find themselves lost in a haunted woods with werewolves and witches and stuff. I haven't seen this one yet, but everyone who has seems to be saying "bad, bad, bad!" I have a suspicion that this is another "magical crapfest" a la Munchausen.


Brazil: This movie takes place in a dystopian society (think 1984) where people's lives are bogged down by bureaucracy, pollution, terrorist bombs and lots of tubes. The main character is a civil servant who keeps his nose down and ekes out a pretty soulless existence until one day he catches a glimpse of the attractive young woman from his recurring daydreams. She drags him into the terrorists' plot and wakes him up to the horrors being committed all around him. Robert DeNiro cameos as a renegade plumber and Katherine Helmond (Mona from Who's the Boss?) plays the protagonist's mother, a lady of leisure who is obsessed with looking younger and has friends high up in the government.

The world of Brazil has a one of a kind look and feel: the action takes place in a sprawling city with a quirky tube-based infrastructure (tubes transporting mail, water, electricity...) and many elements which hearken back to the early twentieth century like black and white TV sets. The gloomy, depressing fantasy element is also present in Brazil, but it is alleviated to some extent by black humor. There's lots of satire and also a few truly frightening moments. On the whole, I'd call this movie brilliant but flawed: the first half shows a lot of promise and successfully juggles the disparate tonal elements, but the last 30 minutes or so are kind of an unwatchable mess. Nevertheless, Brazil does stand up to repeat viewing. We'll discuss the movie's turbulent production history in part three.

Twelve Monkeys: I think 12 Monkeys beats out the others for the #1 spot. This movie was inspired by a French film called La Jetée, but that was just a 30 minute short composed of black and white stills so I give Gilliam full credit for the story. Bruce Willis stars as a man from a grim (gloomy fantasy) future where the human population has been decimated by a virus and survivors must live underground. The powers that be send him back in time with the mission of discovering the virus' origins (which seems to be tied to "the twelve monkeys" which they only known of through graffiti tags) and to stop its spread at all costs. In the present everyone thinks he's crazy and thus during a short stay at a mental facility he meets Brad Pitt's character, a genuine fruitcake who may be involved in the whole virus mess somehow.

Despite the sci-fi premise, 12 Monkeys is more grounded in reality than most Gilliam films, and here the dark fantasy elements have a pleasant City of the Lost Children feel to them (maybe its the Gallic source material or the eerie accordion music). Add to this a suspenseful plot with an ambiguous twist ending and you've got yourself a winner.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Another brilliant but flawed film that gets better on repeat viewing. Johnny Depp plays the main character, Hunter S Thompson's fictionalized alter-ego, and an unrecognizable Benicio del Toro is his buddy/attorney who may or may not be Samoan. The two travel to Las Vegas mid-drug binge to report on a motorcycle race and end up staying at the same hotel as an anti-drug law enforcement convention. They have a bunch of crazy misadventures which end up being vaguely telling about life as a druggie egotist and what American society was like in 1971 (most of which still holds true today).

The fact that the main characters are high out of their minds for a lot of the movie does allow Gilliam to engage in some of his trademark surrealism, but for the most part its more psychedelic than fantastical. Like Brazil (and arguably even more so), Fear & Loathing includes a few shocking scenes that are hard to watch (um, the waitress at the diner). This is why I think repeat viewings tend to be more enjoyable: you know that stuff is coming and can enjoy the comedy and insanity more. Don't miss the part with Christina Ricci and since Halloween is coming up think about how cool a Raoul Duke costume would be!


If you've paid attention to Gilliam's career like I have, you've heard a lot about his problems getting his movies made. First, there's the Battle of Brazil, a whole book about Gilliam's struggle with Universal Pictures to get that movie released. Basically, the studio was so unhappy with the final movie that they didn't even want to distribute it, but then Gilliam managed to show it to some critics who were like this movie is great.

Now I gave Brazil a thumbs up, but I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I kind of see where the producers were coming from. I know! There were problems all along, but as far as the final product goes the first complaint was that they didn't like the title. I agree that "Brazil" is a stupid title for a movie that has nothing to do with the country in South America and is more George Orwell than Copacabana. The only connection is that the jazz tune "Brazil" based on "Aquarela do Brasil" plays throughout the movie.

Problem #2 was that they didn't like the ending -- specifically they wanted a happy ending. I've already called the last act of the film an unwatchable mess, and I will add that the closing scene is immensely depressing (and sort of chilling). I can see how the studio would not be happy with this. I don't know what could have been done to "fix" the ending, or if that would even be possible, but I kind of feel like at this point Gilliam threw his hands up and was like "no!" Yeah, tacking on a Hollywood happy ending would probably have been stupid, but you have to admit that Brazil's finale's got major problems.

Having said all this, I did call the movie "brilliant but flawed" so I do think the decision to let it rot rather than release it was a bad one. But, come on, this movie was always destined to -- at best -- be a cult favorite that got some critical acclaim. This movie was never going to achieve serious commercial success.

Then there's this documentary called Lost in La Mancha which is the boohoo story about how Terry Gilliam wanted to film a movie based on Don Quixote, but the project was killed because of his disagreements with the French producers and other assorted production problems. At this point, you gotta think "gee, is the problem the producers or is it Gilliam?" I think he's probably just a difficult person to work with -- a temperamental artist perhaps -- and that he probably refuses to compromise his vision. This is often laudable, but you have to ask yourself if Gilliam's finished products are good enough to justify this obstinacy. I'm saying that out of all his movies 1 was awesome, 2 were great but flawed, and the rest were blech.

And while we are at it there is no doubt in my mind that Don Quixote was going to be another romantic crapfest with dreary fantasy elements in the vein of Baron Munchausen. I mean can't you just see it? Actually, we may not have to speculate about this forever because it appears that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is back in "pre-production."


The same fears apply to the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Like I said, the trailer looks cool, but it seems that Gilliam has ventured into dangerous territory (for him) and that we might have another one of his dreary fantasies on our hands. I am sure I will see it eventually, but my hopes are far from high.

Images: photos from movie Brazil found on verdoux blog.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Gracchi: Gaius

I know that everyone is waiting with bated breath for the exciting conclusion of my series of posts on the Gracchi, so without further ado let's move on to the life of Gaius Gracchus...

Comparing Tiberius and Gaius

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (159-121 BC) was nine years younger than his brother Tiberius. Plutarch tells us that whereas Tiberius' speeches were eloquent, subdued, and persuasive -- vying for his audience's sympathies --, Gaius' rhetoric was more fiery, impassioned and sometimes coarse. Gaius was the first Roman orator to face the crowd rather than the Senate house when delivering speeches in the forum, as well as the first to tear off his toga mid-speech. All this makes sense when one considers that, in addition to his concerns about social justice and democracy, Gaius was also motivated by grief for his brother and a desire for revenge against those responsible for his assassination.

Paradoxically, Gaius was more cautious about the actions he took (no doubt because he remembered the fate which befell his brother), and a modern observer might declare that many of the reform measures he proposed were more practical than those introduced by Tiberius.

Early career

Gaius was only 26 in 133 BC, the year of Tiberius' tribuneship. You may remember that at the time he was serving in the military in Spain under Scipio Aemelianus and that he was appointed in absentia to the land reform commission established by his brother's lex sempronia. After Tiberius' assassination, Gaius seems to have stayed quiet and to have largely avoided public life for seven years or so.

It's worth noting that during this period, in 129 BC, Scipio Aemelianus died under mysterious circumstances. Despite his ties to the Gracchi by blood and marriage, Aemelianus had supported the optimates (the party representing the rich and powerful) and many people suspected some member of the populist party (like M. Fulvius Flaccus or G. Papirius Carbo, the tribune whose measures he had blocked) or even a member of the Gracchi clan (perhaps his wife Sempronia or mother-in-law Cornelia) had had a hand in the great general's death.

In 126 BC, then, Gaius was appointed as quaestor to serve under the consul in Sardinia. Plutarch also tells us that Gaius used his growing popularity with the masses -- no doubt due in part to his brother's legacy in addition to the reputation he was building for himself -- to help get fellow populist Marcus Fulvius Flaccus elected as consul for the next year.

As Tribune

Gaius was elected Tribune of the People for 123 BC. He was also voted into the same office for the next year even though Plutarch tells us that he did not actively campaign for reelection. As I said in my post on Tiberius, the Roman constitution originally required incumbent magistrates to wait a number of years before they could be reelected. G. Papirius Carbo had apparently tried and failed to get a law passed allowing incumbent tribunes to run for reelection in 131 BC (when he was tribune), so I'm unsure whether this term limit had been repealed by 122 BC or whether it just wasn't being enforced.

During his two years as tribune, Gaius undertook many reforms. First, he passed judicial reforms aimed at checking the power of the senatorial class and at punishing family enemies. One measure provided for 300 members of the equestrian class to sit as judges beside the senators who had previously controlled the court system. The equestrians were the second highest order of Roman citizens after the senators: they were wealthy and enjoyed certain privileges and rights, but many of their families probably had humble, provincial, or non-Roman Italian origins. A law was also enacted stating that courts trying senators for corruption should be presided over by equestrian judges.

Gaius also outlawed the execution or banishment of Roman citizens without a public trial, making magistrates who did so subject to prosecution. This law presumably had retroactive effect, and thus it could be used against members of the commissions set up to execute and banish Tiberius' supporters after his assassination (because that happened). Chief among these was Publius Popilius Laenas who had been consul in 132 BC; he fled Rome rather than stand trial and was declared banished in absentia. Gaius also proposed a bill which would bar those removed from office by the people from running for public office in the future. The clear target of this law would have been Tiberius' old enemy Marcus Ocatvius. However, Gaius voluntarily withdrew this proposal before it was voted upon.

Economic reforms

Gaius also resumed his brother's work towards economic and agrarian reform in favor of the poorest citizens. He continued dividing the public land among the poor and, to further this goal, he proposed the establishment of new Roman colonies in conquered lands. This would mean citizens would be granted parcels of land in areas where they'd be less likely to run afoul of the land-grabbing elite.

Another of Gaius' laws provided that grain from Rome's overseas territories should be stored and sold to the poor at a subsidized price. This was the beginning of what would become the grain dole.

Extending the franchise

Votes for Italian allies would become perhaps the single most important political issue in decades to come. So who were these people? When the city Rome was founded, Italy was home to a number of different ethnic groups. Alongside the Romans there were the Etruscans, the Sabines (as in the legendary "Rape of the Sabine Women"), and the Samnites to name just a few. By the 2nd century BC, however, the Romans dominated not only all of Italy south of the Alps, but also large chunks of Spain, Greece, Asia Minor and Tunisia. The Italian allies were members of tribes who fought alongside the Romans; although in theory they each had their own government, in practice Rome called all the shots at least when it came to foreign affairs and military decisions. Thus, the lives of these people were shaped by the government in Rome but as non-citizens they had no say. He may not have been the first man to address this inequity, but Gaius proposed a law extending citizenship and the vote to Italian allies .

Reaction by the optimates
The optimates had labelled Gaius Gracchus as their enemy even before he assumed the office of Tribune in 123 BC. Thus they arranged for him to be tried for misconduct in connection with his quaestorship in Sardinia, but he easily escaped conviction due to his popularity and oratory skills. Over time their fear and resentment of Gaius would only grow.  For one thing, he personally undertook to execute many of the laws he proposed: appointing the new equestrian judges, handing out parcels of land, etc. Good Republicans distrusted any one man who personally wielded so much power and influence.

One way they hoped to counter Gaius' popularity was by having their own man Marcus Livius Drusus (died 108 BC) installed as tribune, and having him put forward his own rabble-rousing proposals. Thus, Plutarch tells us that whereas Gracchus suggested two new colonies, Drusus called for twelve colonies with 3,000 settlers each. Drusus also proposed that poor citizens granted public land be relieved of the burden of paying rent, and -- as a concession for opposing the franchise -- he moved that Italian allies serving in the army could not be subjected to corporal punishment by Roman generals. Because Drusus represented the Senate, the measures he proposed may have helped heal the rift between the common people and the ruling class (at least temporarily).

The tides turn

The work of fellow tribune M. Livius Drusus helped curtail Gaius' personal influence. Another reason why Gaius' popularity among the Roman people might have waned was because many of them resented his proposal that they share their power as voters with the Italian allies. And then there was the "Let's rebuild Carthage" debacle...

Plutarch tells us that Gaius travelled to Northern Africa in order to help lay the foundation for a new colony called "Junonia" which would be built on the ruins of Carthage. It's unclear whether the idea for this colony originated with Gaius himself or with his rival Drusus. When the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War it was decided to totally wipe the city off the map in what I would like to call an act of "genocide lite." Cato the Censor (234-149 BC), a cantankerous old man, was especially famous for calling for Carthage's destruction. Thus it's no suprise that rebuilding the city engendered controversy.

While Gaius was abroad, his enemies spread rumors of ominous portents in Africa which showed that supernatural forces were fighting against the project. For example, it was said that wolves dug up the posts showing where the walls would be erected and dragged them off into the wilderness. Wolves! Like the she wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus! Don't you see, the Goddess Rome herself is telling us not to rebuild Carthage. Gaius' involvement with this ill-fated colony probably didn't do much to aid his reputation. Oh, and there are no wolves in Tunisia.

Gaius' demise

Gaius was again put up as a candidate as tribune for 121 BC, but this time he lost the election. Plutarch suggests that Gaius' popularity with the people had waned, but then he tells us that his enemies resorted to fraud in counting the ballots so as to remove him from office. The optimates also had elected as consul for 121 BC one Lucius Opimius. Once he took office, Opimius immediately announced that he would annul all the laws that Gaius had passed. When they learned of this, Gaius Gracchus, Marcus Fulvius and their supporters organized a mass protest centered on the Aventine Hill. Things turned ugly when Opimius' servant Antyllius (a real asshole, according to Plutarch) was attacked and killed by the mob.

Opimius had mourners carry Antyllius' body to the forum in order to incite the senators to action against the unruly mob. The people thought that this was bullshit: when Tiberius Gracchus, a tribune from a noble family, was killed his body was unceremoniously chucked into the Tiber, and here the senators were making such a big deal out of the death of a lowly servant (who kind of had it coming)?! But, anyway, the Senate was sufficiently moved by the display that they voted to declare marshal law and grant Opimius authority to quash the uprising.

In the ensuing fracas, M. Fulvius and his sons were killed and Gaius Gracchus took his own life. We're told that Opimius offered its weight in gold to whomever brought him Gaius' head and that the dishonest man filled Gaius' brain cavity with lead in order to fetch a higher price. When all was said and done, 3,000 supporters of the populists were put to death: their bodies were thrown in the river, their assets were seized by the state, and their wives were forbidden from mourning.


Lucius Opimius was convicted of taking bribes from the Numidians in 116 BC, and he died in disgrace. The Italian allies were eventually given the vote after some of them revolted in 91 BC. Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman city under Julius Caesar around 49-44 BC.

Meanwhile, the people of Rome would erect statues in the memory of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and the spots where they fell to their enemies were declared hallowed ground. Cornelia would pass the remainder of her life in her villa on the Bay of Naples where she would proudly recount the story of her sons' lives and careers to her illustrious guests; Plutarch says she'd never let tears betray her emotions, but rather she would speak of them as if they were already figures out of the annals of Roman history.

Images: Cenotaph of the Gracchi by Eugene Guillaume on display in Paris' Musée d'Orsay (pic posted on flickr by user Carlos Pinto 73); lithograph of Gaius Gracchus found on