Friday, August 6, 2010

Balsamic Reductions, Respec' and Eminem

So last night turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag as far as entertainment/dinner pairings went. First, I'll start off with dinner, which nearly turned out to be a sixty-dollar trip to a nearby restaurant (oy, New York). That madness didn't last long, however, and Adrian and I set out on our daily venture to Citarella to get something to make. This resulted in the following:

We made duck with a blackberry-balsamic reduction, sweet potatoes and fresh spinach. The entire thing was quite lovely. I really enjoy duck, but we don't have it that often even though Citarella sells fantastic $10 duck breasts that are quite enough to feed two people. The reduction was very good, especially since I accidentally dumped in more sugar than I intended while I was making it. Accident or fate? You tell me.

Anyway, the night's entertainment turned out to be 2002's 8 Mile, and I guess now it's time to discuss the complicated feelings I have toward Eminem. First, though, I'm going to tell you a little story. My sister, Piper, has always had a rather unique way of looking at things, and has maintained an interesting relationship with the English language. Once, when she was about seven or so, we were at a horse show where she managed to catch a small frog in a styrofoam cup. She brought it up to my mom's friend, Linda. Linda asked, "What have you got there, Piper?" Piper replied, "A frog. Isn't it great?"
"What's so great about it?" Linda inquired. To which Piper thoughtfully regarded the frog and said, "It's just so...honest."

So I guess that's one way to sort of describe my feelings towards Eminem. This is not to say he in any way resembles a frog or any sort of amphibian for that matter. It's just that generally he projects this sort of very aggressive, violent persona but yet, like the frog, there's a little sumthin' sumthin' going on under there. I never really listened to his music and I thought he was a bit scary when I was in my early teens. He seemed to be very angry about everything all the time and expressed it by yelling and occasionally dressing up as Spock. Then I saw a trailer for 8 Mile, and I immediately wanted to see it since I'm a total sucker for people with great faces. And he's got a great face.

It's probably been around seven or eight years since I last saw the movie, but that was the image that stayed with me; pale and thin beneath armor-like layers of hats, hoods and sweatpants, staring out unblinkingly with those huge, haunted eyes. His eyes convey a sort of sensitivity and vulnerability that is lost in MTV videos where every shot is one second and consists mostly of him flailing at the camera. Here, what struck me was his stillness rather than his manic energy. When he's onstage during battles, listening to the other rappers insult everything from his skin color to his mother to his social status to his job, I tried to watch him and figure out what he was thinking during all that. He keeps his face blank, almost impassive, but you can feel the turmoil beneath it just sort of simmering. Is it anger? Does he duck his eyes in avoidance? But then--he picks up the mike and words just sort of come pouring out, and I realize that all through it he's calculating, taking and processing every word that is hurled at him and seeing how he can counterattack with the precision of a chess player. I think that many people were surprised by the amount of screen presence that he commands, and what continues to fascinate me are the contradictions that I see in his character. He's tough, bigoted, violent, extremely profane, juvenile, yes. But at the same time his lyrics have a complexity and a rawness to them, not to mention rhyme schemes that would boggle the minds of many English majors. And what further impresses me is that he can just toss of those rhymes on the spur of a moment, with only a few seconds' thought.

I enjoyed 8 Mile about as much as I did the first time, but then Adrian and I decided to watch some of the special features as well. And this was where we struck gold. We decided to watch a little featurette about how Curtis Hanson, the director, organized a little impromptu battle-thon to keep the extras in his club scene happy. Four would have the chance to face Eminem in an unscripted battle onscreen and may be featured in the final cut of the movie. They showed a few of the auditions (one of my personal favorites was a gentleman who took his thirty seconds of time to describe the amount of marijuana residue to be found in his urine). When it came to the final four battle, Hanson (who was narrating the featurette and rather adorably kept referring to Eminem as "Marshall") informed us that he had instructed Eminem to just pantomime his half of the battles, since he was beginning to lose his voice after three days of shooting in the club. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed that we wouldn't get to see him do his stuff for real. I enjoyed the final battles in the movie but always in the back of my mind I knew that they had been scripted, so it would have been interesting to witness the real thing.

So the first battle went and Eminem mimed his performance and the other guy was pretty good, applause, applause. Then the next guy came up and did his thing, and in retaliation Eminem again began to mime his performance. This time, however, the audience (who was clearly getting into the real spirit of things) began to boo and taunt him. So he stopped, paused for only a second and flipped the switch on his microphone:

Hold on, (offensive term) let me turn this mike on
Don't think for a minute I'm gonna let you get away with that song
That shit was wack, you ain't spittin'
As a matter of fact, all that shit was written
And I know it wasn't for me, you surely must adore me, now lookee
Yo, you might as well move to Italy, 
Look this guy's ripped 
(ripping sound)...literally. 

It goes on, but you can really just hear the crowd come alive as soon as he starts to rap, his personality and charisma are sort of infectious. It was like a creative dam holding back and then finally being released, all in that scratchy, bruised voice. And for each of the following two battles, he fights right back and completely owns the stage. It was a great moment, especially because I was watching it with Adrian, who is probably the world's best audience member when it comes to "OOOOhhhhh!!!" moments (as in "Oh, no he did-n't!" or "Oh, man, that shark just bit that guy in half! Hahahahaha!") He kept letting off "OHHHHH's!!!!" that probably could have been heard all the way to Hoboken.

There's such a deep, primal pleasure to be had from watching people who are extremely good at something do that thing and do it well. So, in case you haven't seen the movie in a while or didn't have a look at the extras when you first saw it, give it a re-watch (among other things you'll get to see the hilariously disconcerting image of Eminem comfortably resting his elbow on Brian Grazer's shoulder). As for me, I'm still thinking about that moment when he turned the mike back on. That's such a defining moment for who I understand him to be. Someone who thrives on performance, on challenge, on competition, and someone who has an amazing gift for swift thought and lingual dexterity. I mean, I did improv comedy for a number of years, and it's tough. I can't imagine what it would be like if I knew the crowd was going to publicly crucify me if I messed up. Who would Eminem have been if he had been born fifty, a hundred years ago? A poet? Dead before twenty? It's fascinating to see someone who has been able to thrive in the context of a very particular art form in a very particular moment in time.

In truth, that moment was the definition of art. Being completely incapable of remaining silent when someone tells you to do so.

ps. Adrian would like to register his dignified outrage at all the horrible, slanderous claims I made about his movie-watching habits in the previous post. He would like me to say that he greatly enjoyed Guys and Dolls AND My Fair Lady and knows all the words to "I Have Confidence in Me" from The Sound of Music, thank you very much, and that he's not at all the snooty, closed-minded poo-head I make him out to be. Which he isn't by any means. But I mean, come on, my blog's called Expedient Exaggeration. What did you expect?

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