Category: What Were They Drinking?!

Wine is a passing mention in books and lyrics, a prop in film and theater. But even as a side note, it’s always telling. Sometimes knowing what they’re drinking deepens our understanding of the story and characters. Sometimes it just makes them more ridiculous.

House Wine: Obvious Child’s Cheap Anonymous Red

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Wine signifies wealth on film. The successful boyfriend in the beer-fueled Drinking Buddies packs wine on a picnic hikeRobocop’s cocaine kingpin drinks it at work. In Say Anything, the heroine’s affluent family grills her blue-collar boyfriend while sipping from crystal glasses.

This connotation obscures a fundamental truth about wine: that it is often the cheapest booze available. A bottle of wine costs as little as a few dollars. Yet many film-goers would not recognize whether a bottle was expensive or cheap just from the look of it. Plenty of cheap wines have fancy labels, while prestigious boutique producers use the same eye-catching, colorful designs as mass-produced corporate brands. (Highly branded wines are the easiest to identify. Many people have a basic understanding that ‘Silver Oak’ is expensive, which underlies its popularity despite its poor price value.) If a glass of wine isn’t known to be high class, its assumed to be aspirational of high class. The same could be said of wine drinkers.

A pile of cans’ or ‘a flask’ visually connote cheap drinking more effectively, but their representation becomes inextricably tied with characterizations of desperation, and recklessness. So chalk it up to Obvious Child, whose heroine Donna finds herself knocked up by a relative stranger after losing her job, apartment, and serious boyfriend, to be the rare movie that documents the reality of the struggling wine consumer.

As a time capsule for the 2010s Brooklyn, Obvious Child captures the sparse apartments, the well-worn bars, and silent taxi rides of an urban twenty-something’s (and thirty something’s) life. It also articulates its characters’ drinking behaviors just as accurately. In Obvious Child, wine is only drunk at home, and its always red (the film is set in winter.) A lonesome comedian spills a good deal on his shirt, during a doomed seduction of attempt in his bachelor pad. Donna and her friends drink wine over dinner, haranguing and playfully debating women’s rights.

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On the other hand, these characters order call drinks and beer at the bar, (notably hipster-staple Pabst Blue Ribbon and Brooklyn Lager by Brooklyn Brewery.) Donna and her date don’t order wine at the Italian restaurant, where it would be most stock in trade. Which makes perfect sense: ordering a glass out in most cities would start at $7 at the absolute cheapest. At a bar, the choice is between a good beer and a decent to terrible wine for $2-4 more. At home, the choice is between a six pack of good beer and a decent to terrible wine for $5 less. And if someone is bent on spending that $7, the cocktail will at least be stronger, and wouldn’t make you sleepy.

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 Unfortunately, its difficult to determine how expensive the wines in Obvious Child are. Only one wine is potentially identifiable. Toward the beginning, Donna leaves a series of drunken voice mails on her ex’s line. She swaggers, jeers, back-pedals, hurls her phone, and brandishes a bottle of red wine. Bottles accumulate on the bedside table and dresser as the night drags on. The low quality of the video makes it hard to tell, but the cheery yellow label and neck foil are emblazoned with a logo of a black sun. Personalized neck foils are usually only found on highly mass-produced wines, where the extra brand-ability justifies the extra expense. Small production wineries opt for solid color neck foils manufactured for general use. The sun logo suggests a balmy appellation like Spain or Central California, which coincidentally are areas well suited to producing hundreds of thousands of tons of cheap, ripe grapes. The logo is nearly a silhouette of the Mirassou logo, and the yellow foil recalls Cupcake, two grocery story brands. (Except in New York, where wine can only be sold in liquor stores.) In its own way, this label is actually a pinnacle of iconicity—its so iconic, it evokes other generic brands without even being identifiable itself. A couple dozen wine store and website searches through NYC turned up empty. In fact, its possible that the wine is Mirrasou from a previous marketing cycle. Whatever it is, the wine looks polished and is probably priced at a dollar or two cheaper than the brands it rips off. Donna clearly stocked up in advance, which would have been between $6-$8 at a local wine shop. She even drinks it out of a mason jar.

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Still, there are times when beer should be drunk in house. Especially when its purchased after midnight, and all that’s open is the deli below the apartment. Or, when its the only thing on hand at a young man’s apartment. Wine may be a cheap drinking option, but Donna’s wine consumption is as gendered as its close pint-of-ice cream correlate. David Cross, dressed in a ridiculous tank top, is feminized for comedic affect, (not unproblematically,) when he drinks wine later in the film. When Donna and her one-night-stand, Max, drunkenly revel through the wee hours of the night, they’re pounding local microbrews, (Brooklyn Lager and Sweet Action from Sixpoint Brewery.) The shining silver cans ornament the blissful scene of the two kids parading and messing around, which unfolds to the Paul Simon song from which the movie takes its name. This is also the moment that immediately precedes their off-screen, unprotected sex. The conflict and title of the movie are linked together in a moment of innocent bacchanalia.

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Obvious Child is a comedy, but it also a fairly realistic portrait of a young woman making the decision to have an abortion. No matter where audiences fall politically, both sides would agree that this is a serious situation that preferably would have been avoided. It would be easy for the film to jettison Donna’s life-choices, if only to better illustrate her deepened maturity at the end. The bottle swigging and beer pounding could have been shown as problematic and unstable. Yet the drinking is shown normally, neutrally, with a streak of slapstick. It doesn’t seem to be part of the problem. Similarly, Donna doesn’t seem remorseful about her choices. She doesn’t waver in resolve to get an abortion, or agonize with guilt about it. She grows up a little, notably in her ability to connect with others, but without giving up pieces of herself. Obvious Child fiercely insists on the normalcy of Donna’s decision to have an abortion, and of the decisions that led her there. It doesn’t reject Hollywood’s conflation of cheap-drinking, immaturity, and bad choices, as much as say “Hey, we’re all human here. Let’s be generous.”

This post is part of the series on wine representation in film, called What Were They Drinking?!, co-posted on Hooded Utilitarian. 

Shopgirl: What Were They Drinking

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This is the second part of a discussion on the contradictory portrayals of wine in the book and film formats of Shopgirl. You can read the first part here. 

Shopgirl-the-film displays wine much more often than the book—wine only seems to be absent from Mirabelle’s hand. In the film, director Steve Martin uses wine to illustrate, even incriminate, illustrate that Ray as a man of taste, and decidedly not a man of the people. Wine is only mentioned a scant four times in the novella, yet the references are structural, not simply descriptive.  Each mention supports the story arc like a column.

At the start, Mirabelle’s wearies of her lonely life, drinking “wine” at disappointing gallery openings. Her innocent confession that she is still learning wine enchants Ray, and they share a single glass of Barolo on their first date. In denial of their incompatibility, they get tipsy on a bottle Bordeaux the next time. This trend toward excess backfires when Ray gets stinkingly drunk on several bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with an ex-flame, breaking Mirabelle’s heart.

The story starts with falsity, or better put, a mismatch. Whatever plonk they are serving at the gallery opening barely deserves to be called “wine.” Similarly, Mirabelle may be beautiful, but she goes unnoticed. She may dress fashionably and work at a department store, but she barely scrapes by. Then, in the book’s own words, she’s discovered. Ray introduces the glamour and connection that was missing from Mirabelle’s life. They mistakenly believe that this can be ritualized, or intensified, with even better results. Ray and Mirabelle lose touch with the other’s reality, almost to a point of nihilism, where wine becomes a generic sexual strategy, as opposed to a meeting point with Mirabelle. Ray takes this strategy to another woman, with terrible results. Just like in the film, wine does not feature in happy ending, or at least Mirabelle’s self-actualization. The finale is literally sobering.

With the exception of the first wine, the book’s wine-cameos represent three of the most prestigious and expensive kinds of wine available. Barolo, a red wine from North-east Italy, is made in very limited quantities, and aged for three years before release. It is almost always expensive. Bordeaux can be cheap, (and it can also be white,) but the name is often associated with the region’s exemplary reds, made from certain chateaus. “New world” wine regions propagated Bordeaux’s most heralded grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, so as to better their own reputations. Today a handful of ‘cult’ Cabs command astronomical prices. All three are stereotypically heady, heavy and tannic, with flavors ranging from black fruits to tar to tobacco to clove. They are often described as ‘masculine,’ especially in comparison to more ‘feminine’ wines from neighboring appellations, (Barolo versus Barbaresco, Left Bank versus Right Bank.) Ray spares no expense in communicating his virility to Mirabelle. By allowing her to tap into it, she becomes empowered by his desire for her.

Yet as the varietal name-dropping becomes more obvious, the connection fizzles. Distinction becomes prized over nuance, and fantasty replaces true connection. Barolo might be well known to wine drinkers, but it doesn’t have the same cachet as Bordeaux, which again is overshadowed by the name-brand recognition of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ray is surely getting drunk with another woman on a ‘New World,’ (aka, not Bordelais,) Cabernet, wines that are increasingly dismissed as showy, aggressive, and opportunistic– just like the philosophy of their planters.  According to some contemporary sommeliers, cult Cabernets are simply high-octane, break-the-bank cousins of whatever “wine” was being poured at the gallery opening.

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Ray’s gradual lapse from Barolo to Napa never happens in the movie, where he drinks cult Californians almost the entire time. (There is one Chateauneuf du Pape, although explaining why this is makes things worse would take another blog post.) The server pours Merryvale’s Profile on their first date. Ray drinks Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and Stag’s Leap Diana with take-out, by himself. Even a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon appears on the table of the tacky Mexican restaurant. These might be the product of product placement: Clos du Val can be found in quite a few movies.

That doesn’t change the story they tell about their drinkers. Infamously, New World cult wines don’t demand that their consumer know anything about wine, only that they can remember the words ‘Cabernet Sauvignon,’ ‘Napa,’ and be willing to pay for it. Gone are the intricacies of Bordeax geography and Chateau ranking, or small appellations tucked far away in Piemonte. Ray may be from Seattle, but Ray drinks Californian. And innocent, hardworking Mirabelle can barely be shown drinking at all.

Wine Looks Bad On Film: On Shopgirl

Most stories feature wine as a prop, and little more. A bottle of wine indicates that this is that kind of dinner party, that kind of restaurant, or that kind of aristocrat or bohemian. A film audience can distinguish whether its white or red, sparkling or still, but that’s about it. Less commonly, there are books and films and songs which concern wine, like Sideways.  A middle ground is rarer still, where wine becomes a nearly silent device with which the characters work out their desires and conflicts, without traveling to a vineyard, or making stirring monologues about Pinot Noir. Few book, screen and song-writers realize that a character’s glass of wine reveals as much about them as a dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises, or a Ramones poster.

Steve Martin seems to understand this. Wine threads through both the novella and film formats of Shopgirl. Wine drinking is also one of the few ways the two versions meaningfully depart from each other. Both tell the story of a Mirabelle, a shy, waifish art school graduate who works in the neglected glove department of a luxury department store. Mirabelle struggles to meaningfully connect with people, and is medicated for depression. When courted by a wealthy, well-meaning divorcee, she waylays her uncertainty for hopes of a lasting relationship. The divorcee turns out to be as emotionally limited as the mistress-like role he proscribes for Mirabelle, who leaves him, takes control of her life, and happily gets together with Jeremy, the lost-soul from the b-plot. Everyone “grows up” and self-actualizes. Claire Danes plays Mirabelle, Jason Schwartzman plays Jeremy, and the divorcee, Ray Porter, is played by author, screenwriter and director Steve Martin. In both versions, an omniscient voice, (again, Steve Martin,) narrates the characters’ internal dramas with tender, if patronizing, candor.

shopgirl_badwine_2©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Mirabelle eagerly drinks wine in the book. She abstains in the film. In the book’s first date, Ray is attracted to Mirabelle’s desire to learn about wine, and audibly orders a Barolo. In the film, they crack a joke—“Red wine?” “What shade?” “Maroon.” “Bring me a maroon wine.” While unfinished glasses pile up on the film’s tables and bed-stands, Mirabelle never visibly puts a glass to her lips, and turns down all spoken offers of wine. Meanwhile, wine becomes inseparable from Ray. It codes him as a member of the cool, collected elite, sipping away on his private jet. (In fact, that shot zooms in on the glass, just to be clear.) He drinks wine alone, eating Chinese food, and while wistfully overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. He snubs the old wine Mirabelle offers him from her fridge. Even the close up as he pours water resembles the glamour shot on a box of Franzia. Yet the one instance where he gets sloppily drunk with another woman, and then tries to honorably correct the situation, is not included in the film. Film-Ray is always controlled and sophisticated, yet never quite gallant.

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shopgirl_waterwine©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Along these lines, the film cuts Ray’s internal monologues. Fewer voice-overs make for better films, yet the baby is thrown out with bathwater, and the removal of Ray’s vulnerabilities reduces him to a sex driven automaton, only human when regretting the loss of Mirabelle ‘too late.’ Their closing dialogue might have been copied from the book, but the film’s melodrama is a new addition, where Ray appears as a lost and lonely man, watching Mirabelle and Jeremy triumphantly, (theatrically!) embrace under a shower of flower petals. In the book, Mirabelle and Ray’s intimacy remains intact, if dormant, and their parting appears less tragic for Ray.

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shopgirl_striptease Shopgirl_bedside_6©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

If a glass of wine paints Ray as a sophisticated aristocrat deserving of punishment, it plays into the Madonna-whore complex for women. Sipping wine, Mirabelle reveals that she is tempted to be worldly. Eagerly drinking it would signal that she succumbs. Refusing wine, she appears virtuous and innocent. Mirabelle obviously drinks wine through the story, but the audience only watches her resist it. Wine is something that brings Ray and Mirabelle together in the book, but separates them on film. Part of the problem is that a filmed glass of wine triggers the memory of all the glasses of wine poured in movies before it, and who tended to drink them—mostly wealthy villains.

By participating in the popular iconography of wine as a dangerous class luxury, a connotation developed over centuries in popular film, theatre and illustrated pulp literature, the film Shopgirl plays into the classic Hollywood dichotomies of good versus evil, rural versus urban, honesty versus sophistication, and alcohol versus temperance, which were largely absent in the book.

For example, Shopgirl’s storyline doesn’t seem so far from D W Griffith’s 1920 re-creation of a typical nineteenth century theatrical, “Way Down East,”  where lustful aristocrat Lennox lures country girl Anna into an out-of-wedlock arrangement, and destroys her honor. Cast out of society, she is nearly about to perish on an ice floe when the young, noble farmboy David comes to her rescue and marries her. Mirabelle’s reputation never suffers, (although, it would be interesting to see how Jeremy and her parents would react,) yet Way Down East’s surtitles eerily mirror Martin’s writing in a number of places. Mirabelle wants to be in a committed, monogamous relationship with Ray.  He fails her and leads her on, causing her much heart-ache, and contributing to a paralyzing depression. Way Down East begins,

“Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached his high standards`– except perhaps in theory..”

Suddenly, Mirabelle and Jeremy’s almost nonsensical exchange toward the end of the film makes sense:

Mirabelle: “Jeremy—So what made you do all this?”

Jeremy: “All this what?”

M: “All this… success?”

 J: (beat) “Well, you did.”

M:  “I did? How?”

J: “Well you said, ‘Just do it.’ So I did it.”

M: “Well, that’s not very much.”

J:  “Yeah, but I’ll protect you.”

They embrace and Mirabelle begins to cry.

 On its own, “I’ll protect you” seems like a bizarre non-sequitur. But it flows from the heart of this relationship—Anna/Mirabelle inspires David/Jeremy, who offers his devotion and protection from the corrupted influences that seek her. This is the classic romantic model of centuries of British and American melodrama, a narrative mode that partly developed to address (and sensationalize) the changes and social ills that came with industrialization—poverty, urbanization, race, youth culture, women and child abuse, and alcoholism being prevalent themes. Temperance movies comprised an entire genre of early film, and politicians and activists drew on melodramatic tropes to convince voters to ban alcohol state by state. Melodramatic visuals, like families cowering beneath violent, drunk husbands, contributed greatly to the passing of prohibition. Temperance activists cast alcohol as an evil of the city—conveniently, immigrants concentrated in urban areas, and tended to defend balanced consumption as a part of daily life. Alcohol thus became enveloped in a race war, and the enemy of the honest, American, white male hero. These tropes did not die, but engendered the formulas, frameworks and narratives at the heart of current politics and film-making. It is not easy to imagine Superman drinking wine, (although he only insists “he doesn’t drink when he’s flying.”)  And between Betty and Veronica, the future wine drinker is an obvious choice. It doesn’t make Veronica evil, but it lines up with her frivolous, stuck up, aggressive nature.

shopgirl_ruralhomecoming©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Wine drinking, portrayed in Shopgirl as an aristocratic tendency, seems to have no part in Mirabelle’s life after Ray. Mirabelle collects herself in her parent’s rural Vermont home, and drinks a beer after the break-up. Wine, constantly associated with Ray’s appetite, becomes conflated with exploitation. Judging by the wines mentioned and featured, Martin may be a connoisseur, but as a director, he failed to reverse the negative connotations carried by a glass of wine in a rich man’s hand. Combined with the physical bodies of the actors, ceaselessly articulating their age difference, largely understood to be inappropriate, the film sets a moral battle where there had been mutualism and humanity in the text.

You can find the second part of this post here. 

shopgirl_seconddate_2 ©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Robocop (1987): Chianti in the Rock Shop

Guns Guns GunsWine is a great accouterment for villains. Aristocratic and impenetrable, a glass of red can suggest that its drinker lounges about, sipping the blood of his enemies and chuckling evilly from the shadows. White wines code the airy disconnect of the elite, aestheticized and cruelly indifferent of everyman struggles. Hannibal drinks Chianti and eats people, and the merciless denizens of Elysium drink whites at garden parties in space. Wine conveys authority, but it’s a fairly obvious power-play. And a better villain can out-power that power-play. Enter Clarence Boddicker.

Kurtwood Smith’s performance in the original Robocop is one of a kind. Boddicker’s smile is vicious, but disturbingly sweet.  One moment he squirms with glee, only to be still and deadly the next. He’s the ringleader of a hysterical, trigger-happy gang, which more than anything resembles a group of bros gone wrong. Which is a great reminder for the goonish underbelly of many male-bonding narratives.

But Boddicker doesn’t dominate as much as destabilize. He’s balding and bespectacled, yet emotes childishly.  He throws tantrums. He unpins a grenade with his tongue, peering down at his quarry with an odd, come-hither look in his eyes, practically miming to his employer’s recorded assassination statement. Boddicker’s interaction with the one glass of wine in the film is no less subversive. When demanding a cut in the price of cocaine, Boddicker sticks two of his fingers into a drug lord’s glass of Ruffino Riserva Ducale, and then snorts the drops from his fingers.  Even better, the drug lord then picks up the glass, and in a bizarre act of social facilitation, takes a sip.

It’s interesting that the wine appears here, in a cocaine factory, and not in the hands of one of the privileged board members of the evil corporation OCP. While it would have been ridiculous for wine to be served at their meetings, its equally absurd for it to appear in Sal’s rock shop. Not to mention that Ruffino Riserva Ducale is prestigious. Karen McNeil deems it a ‘must’ to try in The Wine Bible, “One of the leading producers of traditional Chianti… its Ruffino’s Chianti Claissico riserva called Riserva Ducale that is the jewel in the crown.” Sal’s bottle looks to be contemporary to the ‘80s; a current vintage Riserva Ducale would cost about $25 retail, and about $50 or more in a restaurant. Not a rare or overly expensive wine, but not cheap either, and Sal seems to be drinking it casually.  Which is a power statement in itself—Ruffino Riserva Ducale is his house wine, even when it can be barely tasted over the wafting powder.  Drinking Ducale in a cocaine factory reduces the wine to an empty signifier of prowess and sophistication. Snorting it is a more honest admission of what it is—a power trip.

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An Even Fancier Bottle if you can believe that.  ruffino-riserva-1953 riserva-ducale

Ruffino Riserva Ducale from 1980 (gold label)*, 1953 (standard label,) and 2001 (standard label) *This is a slightly different wine, using only Ruffino’s best vineyards

A quick dip into the history of Chianti reveals a stranger layer at play. Up until the seventies, Americans knew Chianti as a cheap, barely palatable wine in a straw bottle. While Chianti must be primarily made with the black grape Sangiovese, misguided Tuscan wine laws permitted—then required– the inclusion of Trebbiano and Malvasia into the blend, which are (usually) characterless white grape varietals that are easy to grow. This stretched the Sangiovese a little further, but watered down the quality significantly. While there had always been a tradition of making Chiantis for cellaring, like Riserva Ducale, their reputation was harnessed to the low esteem for the basic Chiantis.

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In the early seventies, Ruffino was one of the first producers to do away with the straw bottle, and presumably decrease the amount of white grapes in the mix. Other producers created “super-Tuscans,” highly lauded, heavy-weight Cabernet Sauvignon blends that often, but not always, included Sangiovese. As these didn’t conform to existing wine laws, they couldn’t be labeled Chianti, and their popularity mirrored the success of the renegade wineries in Napa, California. In order to compete with these non-Chiantis, a “Chianti Classico” designation was created in 1984, which required 80% or more of the blend to be Sangiovese, harvested from only the most traditional growing areas, and the final 20% comprised of black grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Canaiolo or Colorino. (Judging by the above bottle from 1953,  nicer Chiantis previously called themselves ‘Classico’.) However, the use of white grapes wasn’t completely outlawed until 2006.

Chianti’s reputation progressed enough for Hannibal to name-drop it in Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Parallel movements occurred at the same time in Piemonte, with Barolo and Barbaresco, and throughout the whole of Italy by the late 80s.  Italy attracted the attention of American wine critics and their high scores—and a preference for large, fruity wines. For better or for worse, Italian wines changed to fit American palates. In turn, America replaced fantasies of France with rustic Italy, for a variety of reasons ranging between changing kitchen habits and Reaganism. As covered by Lawrence Osborne, in The Accidental Connoisseur,

“Unlike the French, Italians were spontaneous, unsnooty, casual, unpretentiously friendly, and family-oriented—that is, much more like Americans themselves….The huge success of Italian-sounding wines like Gallo and Mondavi had much to do with this commercialized idea of Italy: the Italian family seated around the Mediterranean banquets in golden sunshine. Somehow Italy… had the innocent energy of nature. Like fruit-and-veggie-packed wine itself, that sun-kissed land had about it a whiff of the health food store.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Giuliani was patching broken windows and gentrifying Manhattan, with its heavily Italian heritage, into a safe haven for the wealthy. Film experienced the renaissance of the Italian mob-boss, who took hold of the American imagination with Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972, and was a mainstay by Scorsese’s Goodfellas in 1990, about the time Italian wines went from plonk to paragon.

Sal, wine glass in hand, registers this transformation. Assertive, barely accented and dressed in a khaki dress pants, Sal is the image of late-eighties self-indulgence. He barely registers as a bad guy in comparison with Boddicker, who derisively calls him a ‘wop.’ Sal is the image of elevated crime, with a mob pedigree, which he signals not with coarse stereotypes, but with his enlightened, Italian wine habits. Boddicker’s gesture calls his bluff, replying that crime is always a kind of perversity.  By not relying on racial signfiers, and instead including this vinous conceit, Verhoeven can satirize mob movies, and the thuggish indulgence of Reaganism and the eighties, while avoiding actual racism against Italians.

Boddicker might be crazy, but he’s honest about who he is.  Robocop attests that crime is chaos, twenty years before The Joker’s declares this in The Dark Knight.  Boddicker and the titular Robocop oppose each other like order and anarchy, yet they exist on the same ethical axis, and importantly, are both revealed to be corporate puppets in the end. Sal floats off in cloud-cuckoo land, where there’s honor amongst thieves, or at least a hierarchy. Unfortunately for him, Robocop guns criminals down rather indiscriminately.

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This post is the second in a continuing column, What Were They Drinking?!, featured on  The Nightly Glass, and occasionally co-posted on The Hooded Utilitarian.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Lost Pouilly-Jouvet

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 illus_grandbudapest_sm“Do it—and bring a bottle of the Pouilly-Jouvet ’26 in an ice bucket with two glasses so we don’t have to drink the cat-piss they serve in the dining car.”

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It should not be surprising that a film about a luxury hotel features a few wine cameos. Nor should it be surprising that a comedy should make a joke of them. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel more than delivers on both counts, and his characters’ stilted dialogue seems tailor-made for subtle wine farce. Characters pronounce wine names ridiculously, with baroque flourishes, only to quickly bury them under more talk. You have to be fast enough to catch the name, and faster still to catch that the name was actually a joke. This quirk makes Grand Budapest an oddly respectful film about connoisseurship—a certain amount of taste is required to comprehend what’s funny in the first place.

In Grand Budapest, Anderson rarely mentions a wine directly. He instead creates his own kind of ‘wine talk,’ fragmenting the obscure jargon of wine names, regions and styles, and stringing together passwords comprehensible only to the initiated.  In an early scene, the owner of The Grand Budapest orders a red wine whose name I was not quick enough to catch, and then “a split of the brut.” Not a split of Champagne, nor a half-bottle of  Pol Roger, Billecart Salmon Rosé, or Whatever Whatever. The former would have been obvious, and the second amateurishly showy. ‘A split of the brut’ delights in the absurdity of the language, its implied, abstracted violence (to cleaver a beast?) that can hardly be linked to that tiny bottle of dry Champagne. The server even brings a comically itty-bitty sample glass. Most sparkling wines are made dry, or ‘brut,’ and say so right on the label. As we rarely refer to a wine this way, (“I’ll have the brut”) the term slips under the surface of the cultural consciousness, its use reserved for eccentric experts.

 

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A little later in the film, I wondered if Anderson had started to make things up. M. Gustave, the film’s intrepid concierge, demands a bottle of Pouilly Jouvet. I’m sorry—of Pouilly-Fuisse? A world-class Chardonnay from Burgundy, in Northeast France? Or Pouilly-Fumé, the renowned Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Loire river valley a little to the west? Is that what he meant by cat-piss– are they serving a cheaper Sauvignon Blanc in the dining car, maybe from South Africa or New Zealand? (Of course not, this is a period piece!)  Going back to the script, he does in fact call for a Pouilly-Jouvet. A quick Internet search returned an answer that nicely fits Anderson’s nostalgic phantasmagoria.

At Allexperts.com, ‘John’ posted an inquiry to a ‘wine expert,’ asking if he knew of a Jouvet Pouilly-Fuisse, “an excellent wine but did not Bankrupt the vault [sic.]” In the mid seventies, it was about $10-15 dollars in a restaurant, and $9 to $10 in a store. Presumably restaurant mark-ups were much tamer then, although according to inflation calculators, a $10 bottle of wine would cost equivalently $43 now. The expert responds that Jouvet disappeared in the ‘80s, much like the Grand Budapest Hotel is supposed to have closed, sometime after the author-character visits in the late sixties, but before he wrote about the hotel in the mid eighties.  Which is about the time young couples enjoyed bottles of Jouvet Pouilly-Fuisse in New York, an affordable luxury recalling a lost, less-modern Europe. The Tenenbaum children had probably just been born.

The Pouilly-Jouvet namelessly re-emerges near the end of the film, when M. Gustave, the owner’s younger self, and the owner’s wife repeat the train trip where they had first brought it. Before, police thugs hindered the owner and M. Gustave, but this time the scene is shot in black and white, there are real SS, and M. Gustave is arrested and assassinated off-screen. But not before the script directs him to throw his glass of wine into the face of his executors.

In Anderson’s world, wine is flamboyant but innocent, like M. Gustave, and the hotel itself. As M. Gustave and the hotel owner dually put it, “there are faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Wine is an absurd protest against militarism, modernism, and whatever else you can say Anderson’s Nazis represent. Yet its absurdity makes its resistance all the more potent. A happy indulgence, fine wine can neither integrate with modernity nor its mercenary expediency, and is lost to time instead.

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This post is the first in a continuing column, What Were They Drinking?!, featured on  The Nightly Glass, and occasionally co-posted on The Hooded Utilitarian. I also wrote a longer piece on service in The Grand Budapest Hotel here.
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