Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Dinner and a Movie

Out of the Flying Pan and Into Thai Fire

By Steve Herte

My life is never boring. There's always something new to learn or some new experience. Friday was indicative of this trend. Enjoy!

Wednesday is the day I make my plans for Friday’s “Dinner and a Movie.” As usual, I scanned the listings for movies playing at convenient times and then restaurants nearby that are interesting and diverse. I noted that all theaters playing Pan in 3D were no longer doing so and this influenced my decision to see Pan before it left New York City theaters altogether. I found a theater in the East Village playing the movie at an excellent time and arranged my dinner reservation accordingly.

Friday came and subways were running on schedule and I arrived at the theater with time to spare to view the previews. “That movie has been canceled,” said the woman who took my printout ticket. “What? I’ve never heard of a movie being canceled. What am I going to do in the next two hours?” “I can transfer your ticket to tomorrow.” “I can’t come tomorrow.” “Then, in that case, I can issue you a refund.” I was flabbergasted. One would think, in this day of instant messaging, one could notify Moviefone.com and Fandango.com that a certain movie was not going to be featured before someone innocently buys a ticket.

It happens that I did have some shopping to do and the East Village is a good place to do it. I called the restaurant and moved my reservation from 7:00 to 5:30 pm and completed my shopping in time for dinner. But what shall I write about?

Good fortune smiled on me previously that day. My reviews have inspired my friend Betty to take a college course in writing a review and one of the movies she reviewed was The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Her review caused me to want to see the movie again and I found it on YouTube. Thanks, Betty, you’re a life saver.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Universal, 1957) – Director: Jack Arnold. Writer: Richard Matheson (novel The Shrinking Man and s/p), Richard Alan Simmons (uncredited). Stars: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Raymond Bailey, William Schallert, Frank J. Scannell, Helene Marshall, Diana Darrin, & Billy Curtis. B&W, 81 minutes.

It’s 1957. Sputnik 1 is launched into orbit by Russia, starting the Space Race, nuclear power plants have been in existence since 1948, the nuclear submarine Nautilus records its 60,000th mile, America is deep in the Cold War with Russia, President Dwight Eisenhower suspends nuclear testing for two years, and the Gaithers report calls for more American missiles and fall-out shelters.

Scott Carey (Williams) is an ordinary middle-class American and he and his wife Louise (Stuart) are enjoying a sunny day on their boat. Scott suns himself while Louise goes below for some iced tea. Suddenly, from off the bow a strange radioactive mist flows over Scott and leaves his body glistening and sparkling. Louise notices this right away. He brushes it off and neither of them thinks any more of it.

It’s not until later, when Scott tries on his clothes and notices that nothing fits anymore, that he goes to see Dr. Thomas Silver (Bailey) who confirms by x-ray comparisons that Scott is indeed smaller than his last examination. After an interview, we learn that Scott had also been accidentally sprayed with an insecticide (possibly DDT?) and that the chemicals were reacting with the radioactivity from the (unexplained) mist to cause his gradual diminution.

Scott’s brother Charlie (Langdon) knows a specialist and when Scott has shrunk to three feet tall they see Dr. Arthur Bramson (Schallert). He injects Scott with an antidote (he hopes) and, for a little while, he stays at three feet in height. By now the media is making a circus of his plight (not surprising) and Scott gets tired of staying in the house. So where does he go? A carnival, of course, and he eventually meets the Midget (Curtis), who makes him feel a little better about being small. But when he notices that he’s no longer taller than she, he runs back home.

Things get worse. Scott, at six inches has to live in a dollhouse (Where’d they get that? They don’t have children) and he’s angry and suspicious all the time, snapping at his poor, distraught, helpless wife. The fun begins when Louise needs to go shopping and leaves the door open just long enough to let their pet cat back in. The obviously odor-blind cat thinks Scott is a mouse and attacks him, shredding his clothes (no one explains where they got the increasingly smaller sizes, either). At the top of the stairs to the basement the cat bats the door closed and flings Scott into a box.

Louise finds the shredded clothes and the cat and concludes that Scott is dead. Smaller still, Scott is an explorer in his own cellar, makes a home out of a matchbox, trips a mousetrap with a nail for the cheese, and kills an orb-web-weaving tarantula with a hat pin (what?). When mysteriously, the water heater leaks and floods the basement as Charlie and Louise are about to vacate the house, Scott learns that his voice is now too tiny to be heard and winds up clinging to a piece of wood until Charlie clears the drain and leaves.

But Scott is amazingly undaunted. His self-confidence is limitless. Even when he shrinks to being able to fit through the holes on the screen of the basement window, he’s thinking of the part he and others like him (others like him?) play in this great universe.

Obviously, this movie is a statement about nuclear uncertainty and chemicals gone awry. Ever since Godzilla (1954), moviemakers have been theorizing about the consequences of this new form of energy. Since the 1940s, scientists have been experimenting with the possible harmful effects of DDT. But it was not until 1962 when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out that awareness was heightened and 10 years later, the EPA banned the insecticide in the United States.

Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man is an impressive film for its time. CGI was long in the future (the 1990s) and camera angles and split screens were pretty much all that was available to convey Scott’s dilemma. Today, we look at it and see the incongruities but then, it was great sci-fi. I’m still wondering what the studio crew had to do to make a tarantula run. They usually do not waste energy unless an easy source of food is available. But I had to admire Richard Matheson’s writing: The bravado in the face of overwhelming odds and the horrors that could result from science gone haywire. You may have seen more of his fantastic plots in the Twilight Zone television series. I enjoyed re-viewing this film and re-living the experience.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

99 3rd Avenue (bet. 12th and 13th Sts.)New York

Had my movie not been canceled this restaurant would have been the most accessible for dinner, being only two blocks away. The hostess graciously changed my reservation time with a “See you then.” At 5:30 pm, the restaurant (barely more than a storefront) still had boxes of supplies stacked outside it waiting to be stowed. A small white sign with the name in black and a child’s drawing of a red daisy is the only distinguishing mark (as compared to the grand awnings of other establishments in the neighborhood).

When I booked my reservation, the attractions were “Modern Thai Comfort Food” and the online photos of Chef Ngamprom “Hong” Thaimee. Not only is she stunningly beautiful (she started as a model, but switched to cuisine), but she’s also written a book, “True Thai: Real Flavors for Every Table.”

As I might have suspected (and did, but brushed it off) “comfort food” does not necessarily imply comfortable seating. The website only gives hints of the furnishings and I took that to mean a restaurant designed for young people, i.e. high tables with stools and hard wood benches and chairs without cushions. Couldn’t have predicted it better.

When I announced myself to the hostess as “the guy who changed his reservation time,” she led me to a normal table with the choice of a chair or the bench. I chose the bench. Much later on I was a little sore. Ngam is not much to look at inside. The bar takes up much of the space on the right as one enters and high-stooled tables are on the opposite wall. The main dining area is small and the décor rudimentary. The gleaming silver insulation on the air conditioning ducts attracts attention away from the open brick and barely plastered walls. The lighting is from a flock of spots suspended from the ceiling like hunting spiders. No tablecloths, just black cloth napkins.

The place is definitely geared to a younger dining crowd, East Village funk, right down to the blackboard advertising cooking classes with Chef Hong and a giant photo of her as an adorable toddler. Among the added attractions are that all their condiments are made from scratch and they only use sustainable and non-endangered seafood in their recipes.

My server, Autumn, an appropriately named redhead, brought the menu and drink list and took my water preference. The food menu features Small Plates, Soups, Salads, Main Dishes, Noodles and Rice (dinner size), Seasonal Specials, and Sides. There were many interesting potables on the drink list (once my eyes got used to the lighting and small print) and I chose the Mr. Marmalade – Maker’s Mark bourbon, Blue Moon beer, orange marmalade, lime juice and orange bitters. It was not too strong, not too sweet and just tantalizingly orange-y to start off the meal right.

Given all the categories on the food menu I had to ask Autumn’s assistance in choosing three courses without ordering too much food. She was a great help. She chose the appetizer from the small dish category and the special soup (her favorite), while I chose the main course. When I saw one price for “unlimited Singha beer” I asked her about it. “Would you like to do that after your cocktail?” “Sure!” “Let me know when you’re ready.” Singha is a Thai beer (surprise!) that has been brewed since 1933 (double surprise!) and it’s actually very good. It’s a hearty lager without being too strong and only conflicted with my appetizer, the Thai spring rolls.

The spring rolls were served standing on end in a sweet, orange sauce. They were filled with delicate vegetable flavors and glass noodles and were delicious, providing you didn’t take a sip of the beer. The next dish, which arrived simultaneously with the spring rolls (I know, I didn’t warn them), was a special of the day, Tom Yum Soup. This was the only spicy dish, one could say fiery – I could see the slices of green chili in it. But it also qualified as Thai comfort food. Several shrimp, pieces of calamari and the chilies shared the flavorful broth with carrots and green vegetables.

I was not quite finished with the soup when my main course arrived. Served in a rustic wooden bowl was my red curry with duck. A leg on the bone and breast meat joined farm fresh butternut squash cubes, Thai basil, and Thai long chilies in a homemade red curry. Aromatic white Jasmine rice was served separately in its own bowl. The first thing I noticed was that “red” curry is not red per se. It’s actually a pale pink (like a paprika cream sauce) and it’s only mildly spicy. Comforting? Yes. Rich, almost earthy in flavor, this curry was amazing. The duck was tender and easy to cut and remove from the bone and the squash was like adding candy to the dish. I took my time, enjoyed the beer (which was perfect with this dish) and finished both the curry and the rice. The rice helped soak up the remaining sauce.

At this point I almost didn’t notice the bare wood I was sitting on. Autumn asked if I was ready for dessert and I said yes. The poached pear in chocolate sauce and sprinkled with shredded coconut was exactly the right size and sweetness to finish the meal. The Darjeeling lemon tea served in a copper press teapot added to the post-dinner delight.

What Ngam lacks in looks it more than makes up for in food. Opened sometime in 2012, I’m glad I finally dined there. Next time I’ll bring a cushion.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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