Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Dinner and a Movie

The Theory of Everything 1200 Miles Away

By Steve Herte

It’s been six years since I lost my girlfriend, Helene, to cancer. We knew each other intimately for almost 35 years. She was my dinner companion, my fellow movie critic, my duet partner; in short, my everything. We did everything but get married. She was married once for a short time, and we knew that, although we were otherwise compatible, that we weren’t compatible when it came to marriage. She was an “Oscar” and I’m a “Felix,” if you know what I mean, and those two types can never co-habituate for any lengthy period of time. Still, not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.

At this week's karaoke night, I did my annual tribute to Helene, as November 14th was the anniversary of her passing. I had with me a list of songs she loved to sing. "We Built This City" by Starship, "I Want a New Drug" by Huey Lewis and the News, and "Sussudio" by Phil Collins were appropriate selections. It was Helene who introduced me to karaoke a long time ago at a restaurant called Casey's Café in Brooklyn (no longer in business). I was nervous. It was the only place where the audience would "Boo" if you were bad. But I was well-received and the rest is history. Then one day we discovered, through a mutual friend, Muldoon's bar and the karaoke host, David Swirsky. Dave so impressed us that we followed him when he moved to Gabby O'Hara's, where I've sung ever since.

As to movies, we never missed a movie featuring Bill Murray, John Goodman or Gene Hackman (her favorites), and she was tolerant of my love of animation. If the movie involved water, such as Deep Impact or The Perfect Storm, we were there (she was a Pisces). She loved trying new foods and would have totally enjoyed my Friday night this week. I hope you do too. Enjoy!

The Theory of Everything (Focus Features, 2014) Director: James Marsh. Writers: Anthony McCarten (s/p), Jane Hawking (book). Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior, Sophie Perry, Charlie Cox, Finlay Wright-Stephens, Maxine Peake, Harry Lloyd, Alice Orr-Ewing, David Thewlis, Thomas Morrison, Michael Marcus, Gruffudd Glyn, Paul Longley, Emily Watson, Guy Oliver-Watts, & Simon McBurney. Color, 123 minutes.

Now the Academy Awards ceremony has a contest! If not for the fact that after two weeks of playing in New York nearly every seat in the theater I was in was occupied, but for the superb acting of the entire cast. Mostly it is for the incredible performance of Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. Not since Heath Ledger’s Joker have I been so convinced and slack-jawed by a portrayal.

Based on the book My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking, this film begins in 1963 at Cambridge University, just before she met Stephen Hawking. Even though her girlfriends warn her about “scientists” and how strange they are, when Stephen speaks to Jane (Jones), she’s attracted to him from the first.

The relationship grows despite the fact that he prefers not to dance at the Spring Ball and triumphs in his achieving his doctorate in a dissertation on black holes and singularities. Then the ALS that has dogged his life makes its first effects known in a terrifying fall on the pavement of the quad. Called “motor-neuron disease,” the doctor gives Stephen two years to live, but Jane still wants to marry him and fight it.

The marriage is one of the happiest days in his life but the degenerative disease progresses. Jane and he have a son and a daughter before the nearly total paralysis takes over and he’s wheelchair-bound. An electric wheelchair operated by a joystick helps give him more mobility and takes some of the burden off Jane.

The wear and tear of the job of caring for her husband as well as the two children shows and her friend recommends Jane join the church choir, where she meets Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Cox) who not only lifts her spirits, but becomes a friend of the family and actually helps out at home. It’s not until Jane and Stephen’s second son arrives that the talk begins. “Is it Stephen’s or Jonathan’s?” And Jonathan decides to step back.

Stephen is invited to a concert in Bordeaux. He flies there by plane but Jane (who hates flying), Jonathan and the two first children travel by car. Stephen is hospitalized by a seizure at the concert and, when Jane arrives she is told that only a tracheotomy will save him. However, he will lose the capability of speech. Given all the options, and being a fighter by nature, she chooses the tracheotomy.

Conversations have now become extremely difficult, and Jane uses a color-coded “letter board” to speak to Stephen. He, in response to the color, raises his eyebrows to indicate which letter he wants. It’s a slow and tedious method. They hire Elaine Mason (Peake), who, by virtue of her enthusiasm (and good looks) connects with Stephen and succeeds in communicating with him.

Soon a new invention is added to Stephen’s wheelchair – a computer with a monitor and a “clicking” device whereby Stephen is able to construct entire sentences and speak them, albeit robotically. (“It’s American! Don’t you have any other voices?” Jane asks.) But at least Stephen now has a voice and a way to write his book. Originally he entitles it “A History of Time,” but realizing how long it takes to write it using the device, he inserts “Brief” before “History” and it becomes a best seller.

Stephen and Jane drift apart as Elaine becomes closer, and he invites Elaine to fly with him throughout America for a lecture tour. (Actually, more of a question and answer session.) In answer to one question about the fame and fortune he responds, “I was recently asked if I was the real Stephen Hawking and I told them no. The real Stephen Hawking is much better looking.” But when asked about how he deals with the concept of God, he hesitates for a long time before giving a brilliant answer that neither accepts nor denies the existence of a creator.

The film starts and ends with a scrim-shot of the family reunited and about to be presented to Queen Elizabeth II, and Stephen Hawkings’ receiving a knighthood. In the formal garden after the ceremony, Jane thanks Stephen for including her in the presentation and tells him he can always refuse the knighthood. Electronically, Stephen says, “Look what we made,” as they watch their children, Robert (Prior), Lucy (Perry) and Timothy (Wright-Stephens) play on the grounds.

Director James Marsh is to be commended on a wonderfully constructed movie, including his reversal of time through previous scenes at the end. The cinematography was excellent and the soundtrack appropriate for the emotional content of the scenes. In two hours and three minutes I gained a new understanding and respect for Stephen Hawking from the story. The movie is definitely for adults and children able to understand what is happening. Young children will be bored with it. But it will attract several award nominations and probably win a few.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

1200 Miles
31 West 21st Street (bet. 5th and 6th Aves.)New York

I’m glad I keep a database of all the restaurants where I’ve had the pleasure (sometimes not) of having dined, because the feeling of déjà vu crops up more and more. Thankfully, in this case it proved to be false. 1200 Miles may look like other restaurants from the street – large window on the street with the name in gold lettering and white-washed nouveau classical masonry surrounding the entrance but inside it’s a minimalist, sleek, almost antiseptically white expanse with dark hardwood floors, splashes of color here and there, and black pipe railings on the stairways. The unobtrusive lights appear bright because of the reflection from the glazed white brickwork on the north wall next to the bar.

The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to table near the back with a comfortable banquette on one side and a chair on the other. The lighting was almost ideal. I did need the votive candle on the table to read certain things on the menu but it was not dark. She left me the menu card with cocktails and beverages on the reverse side and the wine book.

My waiter, a genial young man, took my water preference and asked if I wanted a cocktail. I had not even looked at either menu, so he left to give me more time. When he returned I triumphantly announced that I would like to try the “Smoking Pistoleros.” He grimaced slightly and told me they ran out of the Mezcal ingredient. But I had a backup. I ordered the drink called “A Pear Grows in Amsterdam” – Bols Genever gin, Warwick Farms pear liqueur, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, lemon, egg white, angostura. He brought me the drink in a small tumbler. The egg white formed foam on top of the golden potion and one taste proved it to be an excellent Holiday (especially Autumnal) drink. Usually pear-flavored cocktails taste like medicine but not this one. It was pleasant, sweet and slightly spicy in a pumpkin pie sense.

My waiter sang the praises of the duck entrée and the special appetizer of the evening, and I had to agree they both sounded tempting. But I was in the mood for something radically different. I explained that I wanted to make it a three-course dinner, that I had the appetite to do so and all the time in the world so that it would not be rushed. He understood.

I saw the wine first, a 2013 Chenin Blanc ‘Clarksburg’ The Terraces by Quarry vineyards, Napa California. I’ve loved Chenin Blanc since the sixties and it was a delightfully crisp, light wine to go with my meal choices.

The first course was listed simply as “Soup” – Vegetables (i.e. green and wax beans, carrots, and others), chicken minestrone, small elbow-shaped pasta, consommé, pesto –on the menu. “This is one soup?” I asked. “You’re not the first one to ask that question,” he said. “Yes, it is.” It was a tomato-y red and the basil accentuated the combination of tender vegetables and pasta to make a totally unique experience. It wasn’t just minestrone, or consommé; it was all of the above.

If you’ve been following my articles you know I love pasta and the second course was exactly that. The Agnolotti of Butternut Squash – on a Swiss Chard fonduta (a Fontina cheese), stem pickle, garnished with Fiore sardo (grated Pecorino cheese) and candied orange zest – proved to be three lovely al dente pockets filled with sweet creamy squash on a beautiful green cheesy bed. It was so good I forgot I had a delicious wine to go with it.

When my waiter placed a steak knife on my table after removing the previous dish I should have gotten a clue that something was amiss, but I said nothing. Then, when another server brought the perfectly prepared, mouth-wateringly arranged duck entrée, I knew. “This is fish?” “No, it’s duck.” “But I ordered the Rockfish.” He took the dish away.

After multiple apologies from my waiter and an acknowledgment from myself that maybe I should talk nasally and loud like Fran Drescher (most of the patrons spoke that way – it was horrendously noisy in the restaurant), we were at an understanding and he assured me my entrée would not take long.

The Grilled Rockfish – padron peppers, Romanesco broccoli, savory tomato jam, and herbs – was worth the wait. The flaky, tender fish had a delicate, buttery flavor by itself but mixed with the spicy sauce it was heavenly. I contemplated a side dish when I saw the beautiful French fries on the next table but was glad I didn’t. The dish filled me nicely, but not enough to not have room for dessert.

The Banana Brûlée – steamed banana-hazelnut cake, warm chocolate ganache, hazelnut gelato - was not anything like a Crème Brûlée, but was similarly prepared. The dish was made upside down, sliced bananas on the bottom with a ring of cake containing the ganache filling the middle, and the caramelized crust on top. It was served inverted with the homemade gelato and nuts. Wonderful.

I decided to have an after-dinner drink rather than coffee and the menu provided the option called Chocolate & Spice – Michter’s rye, Chopin chocolate liqueur, Ramazotti Amaro, green Chartreuse, velvet falernum (a sweet Caribbean syrup – flavors of almond, ginger & cloves), whole egg, cardamom bitters, and cinnamon. Holiday time again! The drink brought warm thoughts of a fireplace at Christmas time with snow-coated evergreens outside while sipping eggnog. I was happy.

1200 Miles has been open for a little over a year and I learned that the name is the distance from France to Algiers. I guess I’ll just have to return to try that incredible duck dish. Maybe I’ll change my speech pattern. When I spoke to the couple at the next table the gentleman said that he thought I was from New Mexico. Hmmm.

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