Monday, February 07, 2011

David Foster Wallace Speaks About Mike & Ike Italian Ice

So, I’ve reserved the conference room in our office all day today in order to conduct a solo taste test of Mike & Ike Italian Ice, a chewy candy from the Just Born corporation. Typically, an employee may only reserve our conference room for two hours. So, to get around this, I went around to numerous employees and vending machine restockers claiming the conference room sign-up sheet was actually a civil union petition for my home state of Illinois. Surprisingly, the people in my office are not quite as open-minded on this matter as those resupplying us with Butterfingers and Sprite.

I received from a friend of a friend employed by the Nabisco Corporation marketing department sample instructions from a taste test recently completed in San Diego for a new type of cracker and I’m applying these rules to the taste test. They are as follows: (1)

1)Don’t take a test if you’re sick. I am feeling well today.

2)Don’t eat or drink anything strong before the test. No garlic or coffee because those tastes linger. (2)

3)Do not smoke before testing. Smoking deadens your taste buds. It interferes with your nasal epithelium, which affects your sense of smell, which is linked to taste. Nicotine, when it enters the brain, can tie up nerve centers typically involved with taste, thereby reducing the brainpower you have to devote to tasting Mike & Ike Italian Ice. Very important.

4)Avoid strong perfumes or fragrances. I hope showering with soap doesn’t count.

5)Avoid talking during the evaluation. I am alone and will try very hard not to talk to myself.

6)Please turn off your phone. I left it at home.

First of all, Mike and Ike(3) is a chewy, fruit flavored candy with five flavors to each box. The different flavor themes are Original Fruits, Tangy Twister, Tropical Typhoon, Berry Blast, Italian Ice, Redrageous!, Lemonade Blends, Jolly Joes and Mike and Ike Zours, which is a sour-infused blend. The Italian Ice flavor is a relatively new addition to the Mike and Ike family and capitalizes on what is historically a cool summertime street dessert sold from wheeled carts. The candy version is not served cold, but at room temperature and just in case you’ve hastily purchased the candy for the first time and been wooed by the cool, icy-colored box into thinking it belongs in the freezer, there is a kind warning reading “To enjoy this Italian Ice, you do not need to freeze this product.” I would have capitalized the word ‘THIS’ just for clarity’s sake, but Just Born clearly knows its customers more intimately than I do.

The flavors are Lemon, Orange, Cherry, Blue Raspberry and Watermelon and I’ve poured out the entire box on the large conference table to accurately judge the color against the dark Formica. Atypical with the Italian Ice flavor is that they are actually inside a small, antiseptic white bag whereas most Mike and Ike candies just rest comfortably in a rectangular box board case with a convenient (though impossible to perforate without a Bowie knife) finger-sized dispensing slot. When opening this opaque bag, there is a powerful synthetic fruit fragrance to the candy, triggering flashbacks to former olfactory addictions to glue and turpentine. The pastels of the candies, shaped like inflated child's Tylenol, seem ripped from an Easter Sunday coloring book and my first taste is the lemon. Lemon is one of the most common frozen Italian Ice flavors and the Mike and Ike captures the modesty of the flavor quite well, to the point that you barely remember which flavor you just consumed. Most consumer lemonades should take a hint from this candy, in my opinion, and take it down a notch.

I decide to engage the watermelon next and it instantly calls to mind Big League Chew, which, having never played baseball as a child, I don’t have much experience with. Again, the taste comes and goes like a drive-by shooting. The cherry tastes quite like that artificial cherry flavoring found in most cough drops but not in actual cherries and I realize I’m only twenty minutes into this taste test. How I am going to fill the next seven hours is a slow-growing tumor metastasizing on the conference table next to my pool of Mike and Ike candies. I decide to smell the bag again and it has surprisingly lost none of its original scent. I inhale deeply, letting the fumes of the candy seep deep into the bronchial branches of my lungs, where hopefully they won’t rot away my ability to breathe like the candies will my teeth's ability to grind peanuts.

Mike and Ike prides itself on being both ‘naturally and artificially flavored’, yet it’s unclear which flavors are flavored naturally (and what that means) and which ones are flavored artificially (process also unclear). The ingredients list confoundingly includes pear juice from concentrate yet there is no pear-flavored candy. There is not even a relative of the pear within this flavor assortment.(4) I picture crates and crates of unsold pears day after day watching their apple, orange and banana brethren fly off in trucks to school lunches, grocery stores and sandwich shops when just before they begin to rot, the JustBorn team arrives in blue, embroidered vests to whisk them away to be squeezed down into juice concentrate and then inseminated along with magnesium hydroxide and Red #40 into a line of candies that doesn’t even claim pear as a flavor. Perhaps JustBorn should consider Pearnado! as a potential flavor for us Midwesterners sick and tired of seeing apples and bananas walk away with all the gold medals. We used to have a pear tree in our front yard that annually bore fruit, which the garbage men plucked and ate and left half-eaten in our yard. Pears are clearly second-class fruits. Apples are immortalized in the idiom ‘American as apple pie’ and cherries remain an omnipresent cocktail garnish while bananas provide the rare potassium in our diets and countless opportunities for phallic jokes, leaving the pear unknowable and unrecognized. It’s patently offensive to the pear to include it in the ingredients list.

Mike and Ike also boasts itself as a gluten and fat-free candy, though including ostensible selling points for healthy eating habits on a box of sweets seems to portray a candy in the clinical stage of denial.

1 - It is not clear if these rules are listed in random order or in order of importance.

2 - Since I am a coffee drinker and beginning this taste test in the morning, this is most regrettable as I might either fall asleep or grade every chewy Italian Ice flavored Mike and Ike with the bitterness and anger of a man denied his morning cup of Joe.

3 - Mike and Ike, despite being a box of dozens of individual candies, seems to be both a singular and plural noun, in the same category as deer, fish, squid and sheep.

4 - I consider an apple to be cousin of the pear. The closest relative to a pear in Mike and Ike Italian Ice is probably the cherry, but I’d label them no closer than second cousins once-removed at best.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Mahmoud Didn't Shoah - Another letter to the President of Iran

Dear Mahmoud,

What happened to you last weekend?! Are you okay? I waited and waited and waited, but you didn’t show up. A world leader’s schedule is probably very busy and I will just assume something came up. Maybe there was a hiccup in your nuclear program that you had to attend to. I’ve never owned anything nuclear, but I imagine whatever it is requires a lot of upkeep. My Corolla, even though it’s a Toyota, needs constant attention.

Well, since you missed out on the movie, I’ll do my best to go over the bullet points (no pun intended) and some of the moments that most impacted me. However, I warn you that this recounting is a woefully inadequate substitute for experiencing the film in person. I can unequivocally state that I’ve never seen anything like it. Before I go into the film, I thought I’d set the scene for you a little.

I brought the following snacks to the movie: two clementines, one apple, a PB&J and Mike & Ike Italian Ice. My companion (Yes, I thought you might not make it so I invited someone else.) brought mini-boxes of NERDs. I also bought some popcorn during the second half. Outside the theater, my companion saw a man doing jumping jacks and upon finishing, he said, “Alright, I’m ready.” A man in the row in front of me brought microwave popcorn. I’m not sure where he microwaved this because movie theaters do not offer that service here (maybe they do in Iran?). Perhaps it was under his seat or he popped it at home and then brought it with him, which would have made it cold. During hour three, a woman in front of me leaned over to her husband and said, “What does SS stand for?” Her husband replied, “Secret Service.” Actually, sir, it’s Schutzstaffel, but I think she got the idea. A few audible ‘Oh my God’s and muddled gasps of exasperation were uttered as well, in addition to numerous sighs (mostly by one woman sitting in front of us) during the last two hours, when the film takes a strange turn chronologically and narratively by focusing on the Warsaw ghetto.

-Well, the movie opens with long scrolling text describing Simon Srebnik, one of the only two survivors of Chelmno, an extermination camp in Poland. An important note here is that this was not a concentration camp, but an extermination camp, essentially a killing factory designed for rapid, efficient killing of Jews and other people the Nazis weren’t fond of. We’ll talk more about this later. Anyway, Simon was only a boy while at Chelmno and was kept alive because he could sing beautifully and excelled at jumping and running contests among the inhabitants. He was actually executed with all the other Jews before the Soviets were to arrive. Shot in the head, the bullet luckily missed all vital brain areas and when he awoke, he crawled to a neighboring farm and eventually found his way to a doctor. He’s a modest, humble man who shows no signs of being shot in the head as a boy and when Claude Lanzmann (the director) brings him back to Chelmno, Simon remarks at seeing just forest and empty fields, “It’s hard to recognize, but it was here. They burned people here.” He says this very matter-of-factly.

-A survivor of the Vilna ghetto who unloaded corpses from the gas vans into mass graves said that the first time he unloaded them, he cried. On the third day, he saw his wife and children, placed them in a mass grave and asked to be killed, but the Germans wouldn’t kill him because he was still strong enough to work.

-Jews working in the camps were punished if they referred to corpses as ‘victims’ or ‘corpses’. Instead, they were told to use words like ‘rags’ and ‘puppets’.

-The Germans renamed some Jewish cities with German names after resettling Jews.

-A historian says the Final Solution was an invention, like a combustion engine or the Bessemer process. It was mechanical and industrial.

- The Treblinka gas chamber used a tank engine to create the deadly carbon monoxide fumes.

-Gas vans had hoses funneling the exhaust fumes from the van into the cargo area with all the Jews. They were driven to the mass graves and on arrival, the Jews would be dead. If they drove too quickly, they would still be alive and so they had to driven at a specific speed.

- Some gas chambers could kill 3000 people in 2-3 hours.

- A mother slit her daughter’s wrists herself to escape being killed by the Nazis.

- The Treblinka memorial consists of jagged stones, each representing a Jewish town or village that was exterminated at the camp. You heard that right - entire towns were wiped out.

-Lanzmann and company drive around Europe in a van resembling a VW bus visiting Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and other sites. It is white with a thick red racing stripe that runs around the chassis. It reminded me of an ambulance – a documentary ambulance.

-A camouflage unit made up of Jews was charged with taking branches from trees and weaving them around barbed wire to disguise it. This was an important part of making an extermination camp not look like an extermination camp.

-Another example of this includes an ‘infirmary’ with a red and white cross painted on it. In actuality, prisoners who entered this building were led to the edge of a ditch where bodies were continuously burning. They had to strip naked and then sit on the edge of the pit before they were shot in the back of the head. Then they fell in the ditch and burned. This is an example of the point the historian is making when he says ‘invention’. Someone had to invent or think of this in order to create it.

- In the Warsaw ghetto, one often had to step over the dead bodies of fellow Jews as one walked down the street. These dead bodies were Jews who had either starved, contracted disease or were just executed. I may be leaving out another method of execution, so forgive me for that.

- Oftentimes, right outside the ‘funnel’ at Treblinka, as people undressed and realized what was imminent, they would evacuate themselves. In other words, there were five or six rows of shit and feces outside the gas chambers, according to Franz Suchomel, an SS officer. It’s called ‘death panic.’

- Abraham Bomba, a survivor of Treblinka and barber who cut off the hair of Jewish women before they were gassed, is interviewed at his busy barbershop in Israel. He is cutting the hair of a customer during the interview. He describes a barber friend of his whose wife and daughter arrive to have their hair cut at Treblinka. He stops and cannot continue. He is filmed in this silent struggle for what seems like an hour as he tends to his customer. Lanzmann waits, then asks him to go on. Bomba cries, composes himself and eventually goes on. His friend could neither speak nor warn his wife and daughter of what was about to happen because the SS were right behind them and punished any talking with torture or death. In addition, since many of the incoming Jews had no idea what was going to happen, those working in the camp felt it was pointless to tell them they were about to die. I read on Wikipedia that some of this hair was used for make yarn-socks for U-boat crews. So, a German U-boat solider may have casually said to his mate, “My socks are made from the hair of a Jewish woman who was gassed at Treblinka.” Sounds unspeakably awful, doesn’t it?

- Claude Lanzmann asks this barber to imitate how he cut the hair of the Jewish women in the camp. The barber complies and demonstrates on one of his customers. This is a good example of the level of detail Lanzmann demands of his subjects.

-There is not a single swastika in the movie. There is one old photograph of a Nazi for a few seconds, so there could be a swastika on his uniform, but that’s the only possibility.

- The historian also describes in vivid detail the cost of running these trains. Someone had to pay for them. It was not free. He describes that when many Jews from Greece were forcibly removed, that in some instances their confiscated belongings and wealth were used to pay for their own transport to the death camps. Yes, some Jews essentially paid for their own voyage to the death camps.

Well, I hope this gives you an idea of what the movie is like. I’m afraid I cannot really do justice to such a landmark ten-hour film in just a short letter. Roger Ebert has a wonderful review of the movie here. The film is currently making the rounds here in the US, so this is the perfect time to book it for a theatrical engagement in Tehran if you have any favorite indie movie houses? Or maybe the Tehran Regal 16 might show it? In the USA, chain movie theaters don’t usually show long movies like that.

The film continues to play at the Gene Siskel Film Center for another week if you can make it up this way. If not, I’ll let you know about other upcoming films that might interest you. What kind of movies do you like? Comedies, indies, documentaries, sci-fi, comic book movies? The Music Box Theatre is showing Death Wish 3 tomorrow night. Do you like Charles Bronson?


Mike Brune

P.S. The ticket was $20. Can you reimburse me? They wouldn’t give me a refund.

*Thanks to Script-o-rama for making the film’s transcript available online. Thanks to Wikipedia, too.