Wednesday, June 22, 2011

TV Bites: Best in Show

Honey Roasted Mixed Nuts

You know that game people play where you are asked to pick six (or whatever number) people to a dinner party whom would you choose? Here's one answer I'd pick: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, and Fred Willard. Of course, Ms. O'Hara would be sitting to my right, thank you.

I once had the pleasure of sort-of meeting Mr. McKean - I say sort of, because it was backstage at a Red Hot Chili Peppers/Meat Puppets show and McKean was invited to introduce the Peppers as David St. Hubbins. He was done up with the hair and outfit from his Spinal Tap persona and maintained the character even backstage, so when I met him, I actually met Mr. St. Hubbins, not Mr. McKean. I met Mr. Shearer several times when I lived in Los Angeles, including once being on air with him, when he used to open the phones to callers on his radio show, Le Show. But lady and gentlemen - dinner invitations are open to all six of you and just give me a couple of hours to whip up some food and you're all welcome to come over.

And who doesn't love Fred Willard? If you're not familiar with his early TV appearances as part of the comedy group The Ace Trucking Company, it's kind of dated, but interesting (you may also recognize George Memmoli from Mean Streets).

I hate to do this, but there is a sour note to be played here too. As much as I love this movie, the reality of dog breeding and dog shows should embarrass us as human beings. People get all up in arms about genetic engineering, but genetic engineering of pedigree dogs - not for the better, some say - has been happening for over 100 years now with little outrage until recently.

I know it's kind of difficult to touch on such a dark subject while at the same time discuss a very funny movie. But as Christopher Guest said, "[t]he backdrop of 'Best in Show' is somewhat irrelevant. It's about the people. It's not a dog movie, it's a movie about dog owners. Truly, I don't think these people are any different than people in community theater or people who work in a bank or at an insurance company. There are eccentric people who work everywhere."

And certainly I could equally raise issues about, say the banking and insurance industries. So perhaps it's okay to laugh and enjoy this study of people, not dogs. And at the same time, think seriously about breeding issues. I mean, if you read these posts regularly, you know discussing serious issues is not a rarity.

Because it is an unbelievably pleasurable movie to watch. The performances he gets from some of the best improvisers on the planet gives us entertainment that no other filmmaker has really ever been able to capture on film like Christopher Guest has.

(It's also the 2nd "dog" related movie in a row, in case you're looking for a theme this month.)

Best in Show is available for purchase and streaming @ Amazon, and is home rentable & streamable @ NetFlix.


"And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten."

Let's start here with a little background... Christopher Guest (aka The Rt. Hon. Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest of Saling in the County of Essex - seriously!) grew up in New York of British parentage, attended NYU in the early 60's (where he first met cohort Michael McKean), and spent some time as a folkie in Greenwich Village playing with Arlo Guthrie. In the 1970's, he wrote music for the National Lampoon albums, acted on Broadway, then did some writing for Saturday Night Live. But then in 1978, while staying at LA's Chateau Marmont hotel, he overheard a group of idiot musicians checking in and they inspired the idea for Spinal Tap. Five years after Spinal Tap's first gig on a 1979 sketch comedy show pilot called The T.V. Show, This is Spinal Tap hit the big screen.

"[W]e really had a lot of fun doing that movie," recalled Guest, "and it occurred to us that that particular format was something where we could be funny."

He earned his feature directing chops on The Big Picture, and then decided to return to "that particular format" of film, which is typically called "mockumentary," with Waiting for Guffman.

But first off - "I don't like the term, personally," said Guest. "I would say that they are movies done in a documentary style. But I don't like that 'mockumentary' or the 'rockumentary' thing, because I think maybe it's just too glib or something. I don't have a clever name for them. No one has."

"Guffman was different right away from Spinal Tap, because we didn't show the interviewer," Guest noted. "That person became invisible immediately. That created a different way of tuning it and ultimately editing it. There was no person to cut to, to react to the person doing interviews, merely the people being interviewed."

"I had no idea what it would be like going in," Catherine O'Hara remembered when they made Guffman. "And there was no rehearsal. I showed up after they had already shot a week or two. They let me see some dailies that night, which was intimidating.... [It was like] jumping off a cliff, but with the perfect equipment, and holding hands with a bunch of smart people."

One of those "smart people" was her long time improv partner from the great SCTV, Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and co-starred in Guffman. (Allow me to digress for a moment and say that while I thought SNL was entertaining for the first couple of years - especially for pot-smoking teenagers - it never had - nor has - achieved the brilliance and sheer pleasure of those SCTV shows.)

"It's hard to partner with somebody because writers have different rhythms, different chemistry," said Levy. "But Chris and I hit it off on Guffman from day one. We work very well together."

"Gene [Eugene Levy] is an awfully good fit for Chris — and vice versa," noted Michael McKean.

Guffman was a big hit and gave Guest the ability to continue making "that particular format" again. "After Waiting For Guffman was released everyone asked, 'When is the next one?'" noted producer Karen Murphy who has produced all these films from Spinal Tap through the most recent For Your Consideration.

Six years before Best in Show arrived in the theaters, Guest and wife Jamie Lee Curtis were walking their dogs at their neighborhood dog park. "I saw the people with Labs looking at the German Shepherd owners with disdain, as if to say, 'Well, that dog is clearly not as good as my dog,'" Guest recalled. "Then a woman with a purebred dog looked at my mutt and said, 'What's Henry?' That basically meant, 'I'm sorry you have to have this mongrel, because he's clearly not as good as my dog.' [And] I thought, 'There is something going on here. There's a movie here.'"

Guest eventually called in Levy and the two started to toss ideas around and research the dog show world.

"It's a very unusual world," Levy said. "I had never been to a dog show before we started doing the research and was surprised at the intensity involved. This a full-time thing for these people; they live and breathe dog shows and every weekend they're out there traveling. They've got their dogs in cages and crates, or packed in the van, and they drive hundreds of miles, spend several hours sitting with the dog before it goes on for its 60 seconds of fame. What is it that drives people to do this?"

"I think it's very important to say that we start with more than a loose idea. It's many, many months of preparation," explained Guest. "It's building a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, describing the characters, describing the characters' history. It's setting up a format that grids down every scene, as far as function, as far as plot and how each scene is moving the story along. And then you hang improvisation on this skeletal structure. Without that framework, it's nothing. You can't just show up and start talking."

"Our outline gives a very solid blueprint to the actors so they know how to get from point A to point B, but how they do it is largely up to them," Levy said.

Once the outline for Best in Show was done, Guest started phoning actors he thought could breathe life into the characters he and Levy had sketched out. As Catherine O'Hara noted above, for her it's like "jumping off a cliff." Other members of Guest's informal troupe have offered similar analogies suggesting that being an actor in a Guest film is a death-defying adventure not to be missed.

"It's kind of like jumping off the diving board," said Bob Balaban, who plays Dr. Theodore W. Millbank, III in the film. "Once you do it you can't turn back and there's no stopping. You just are there. It's kind of relaxing."

"It's a little like playing tennis," said Fred Willard, who plays announcer Buck Laughlin. "You can't just sit there going, 'Good shot.' You really have to keep hitting the ball back."

"When [Chris] has a good idea, something that he thinks would work, he calls us up," said John Michael Higgins, who landed the role of Michael McKean's lover Scott. "I compare it to like the beginning of Mission: Impossible. Like a task presents itself to Chris in some way and he goes through his 8x10's and pulls out Martin Landau. Just like in Mission: Impossible, he always pulls out the same 8x10's and there’s his little team. And then they all put their masks on and go and overthrow Zamboobia. In other words, Martin Landau doesn’t know what the task is until he gets the phone call."

"Whenever Christopher calls, you have to answer," McKean similarly noted. "And it's not just because he's my friend and I like hanging out with him; it really is a call to battle, if I can be real pretentious. You know that you're going be in there and you're going to be pretty much naked, because there's no script. But it's okay as long as everybody else is naked too."

So we've got "cliffs," "diving boards," "tennis," "Mission: Impossible," and "a call to battle." How does Guest view it?

"I really like to use the analogy of jazz players who basically stand up on stage and play, yet people don't question that there is no music they are reading from," Guest explained. "This is really the same thing, but we're actors and we're really jamming - with people soloing occasionally."

"You have to know what key you're playing in, you have to know the music, you have to know where you're going to end up," he continued on this jazz metaphor elsewhere. "After that it's up to finding players with good chops. And these actors have the chops."

"We shoot 10-minute scenes, while most movies are broken down to master shots of a minute and a half, then they shoot close-ups," Guest explained. "This way, the actors are talking for 10 minutes, so they feel as if they are really acting and behaving as [that] person."

"I write a character for them and I give them the background for their character, where they grew up, the facts associated with the character. But then it really is up to them to go from here. There is no rehearsal. They show up after I've talked to them, prior to filming, about these characters. We show up and the camera starts rolling. It's totally pure in the sense that what you're seeing being said is being said for the first time," Guest said. "They have tremendous courage. You need to have courage and not feel restrained in any way. In the same way that you would hope that a musician wouldn't have any boundaries and that would be the ideal thing."

Guest lets the actors not only develop their characters, but also their wardrobe and more. "I want the actors to really pick out what they wear in conjunction with the costumer. Or even with the props, and say, 'This is what I want to have.' Rather than, 'You're going to have a pipe. You're going to have a watch,' they pick their watches. They pick their shoes. They pick... it's a great deal of freedom once they know and have looked at this backstory," he said.

And how does this process work out for the actors?

"[W]hen I saw Eugene [dressed up] as Gerry, it made me think that I'd been through all these awful relationships," recalled O'Hara. "I probably never thought they were awful at the time - physically they were satisfying. I think I had some fun, I was a party girl. But I never realized I was with people who didn't care about me until I met Gerry. He was the first man who really loved me and I had the brains to know that if I lost him I'd be dead. I'm smart enough to be grateful for how kind and loving he is. And in my mind he's completely nonjudgmental, so I don't have to keep fighting my past, except when these guys show up."

For Fred Willard, "Chris Guest sent me a tape of the Westminster dog show, and he said, 'Notice that Joe Garagiola has taken no effort to learn anything about dogs.' That was my cue. I was familiar with Joe from his baseball broadcasting and just picked up his rhythms and magnified the ex-jock habit of being self deprecating while at the same time reminding us of their sports background.... My favorite line in Best In Show was when I asked the host if he had any idea how much I could bench press. To me it represented the character's whole self involvement."

John Michael Higgins said a lunch with McKean, Levy, and Guest was what helped he & McKean discover their characters: "The four of us were like, 'Well, what should these guys be and what should it be like?' And Chris sort of knew that he wanted us to be in light colors – not just what we’re wearing, but that we’re happy people because all of the other couples are so miserable in that movie.... [W]hat McKean and I figured out is that we would be the type of couple that you find funny. They are funny people, which is dangerous always because you run the risk of not being a funny person. But I think that the couple we played are a couple of guys who actually you wouldn’t mind spending some time with. It would probably be a lot of fun because they say funny things and have a funny attitude about life. They’re ridiculous in their way, with the kimonos and all that stuff, but get in line. Get in line behind me, for one thing. We’re all ridiculous."

"Parker Posey and I, once we found out we were going to be working together," Michael Hitchcock remembered, "[we knew] that our characters had met at Starbucks and that we were avid catalog shoppers. So we sat in Starbucks, picking out things we’d love to buy. And Christopher, in his genius way, let us talk with the person who was doing the set dressing, and we literally went through, like, Sharper Image and Frontgate, and those kind of catalogs, and picked out things that were later in our home that we thought that these people would like."

As for Parker Posey, I'm not really sure what to make of the following....

"I had a crown put on my open nerve when I was getting my braces for this, so my whole mouth was sore as hell. I had to eat yams, stuffing and matzo ball soup from an LA deli, all this for the part in the film, not to mention as a result of dental work," she shared. "I tend to get really consumed by something which somehow gives me a lot of freedom."

I guess this is why I'm not an actor. I try to avoid dental surgery whenever possible.

But to sum it all up, the skill of acting in a Christopher Guest movie boils down to these basic rules, Michael McKean explained, "[J]ust listening, being in the moment, carrying your own water. Trusting everyone around you. And not laughing when Fred Willard says something."

"It's real acting, in a sense," said Guest. "You're reacting spontaneously to things you've never heard before. You can either do it or you can't, and if you're with a bunch of people who can, there's nothing more fun."


"We actually had to stage our own dog show," said Eugene Levy, "and that's where the nightmare started. We literally had to put everything together from scratch, get somebody to organize the whole show, get the dogs in, find trainers and so forth."

Unfortunately, in the real world of dog shows, a nightmare has been going on for too long. (Though this problem is not restricted to dogs. In February, I lost a 12-year old cat to cancer. I had gotten him in from a shelter, but as I learned from my veterinarian when we he started to get ill, that long-haired cats generally don't live as long as tabbies, for example, because of all the inbreeding done to develop their breed, which has left them genetically weak and prone to disease.)

In 2008, the BBC aired an investigative report entitled Pedigree Dogs Exposed, (which you can view here. I found it very tough to watch, just warning.) As the documentary explains, initially dogs were bred for their function - guarding, herding, etc. But in the 1800's, two things happened which are believed to have given rise to dog competitions in England. The first, was the rise of a middle-class who had "all that time and money on their hands. Dogs became a status symbol, and dog breeding a sport." Another development in England that may have given rise to competitions has been said to "have been the result of laws that declared bull-baiting and dog-fighting illegal in 1835. Looking for a kinder, gentler type of competition, the conformation dog show developed, aided by the growth of the railway system, which made transportation more accessible." Eventually, dog shows spread to most of the Western world.

But when dogs began being bred for show instead of function, things changed. They were now being bred for looks. New breeds were created and judged solely for their physical appearance, oblivious to other issues, such as health. The narrator of the report explained that "[o]ne of the great ironies of pedigree dog breeding is that for all the talk of improvement, after all those years of selective breeding, it turns out that on average, the common mutt, the often scorned mongrel, is healthier, and they live a little longer too. The problem is that many breeds descend from just a handful of dogs. And under Kennel Club rules, they are only allowed to mate with another dog of the same breed. So today's dogs are very inbred. At least 10 times more so than you or I, and in some cases 100 times more." And this causes all sorts of physical, genetic, and neurological problems for the animals.

For example, "It was reported that the 2003 Crufts champion – a Pekingese – had to sit on an ice pack to have its photo taken. The [BBC] program explained that the breed tends to overheat due to its inability to breathe properly, as a result of its flattened face. The dog was revealed to have undergone a soft palate resection earlier, to fix a problem caused by the flattened face. Professor Dan Brockman from the Royal Veterinary College explained that the condition is inherited and is very likely to be passed down to later generations. Despite that, the Crufts champion had sired 18 litters."

"What I see is a parade of mutants," said Dr. Mark Evans, chief veterinarian of the RSPCA. "It's some freakish, garish, beauty pageant. And it has nothing, frankly, to do with health and welfare. The show world is about an obsession with beauty, and it is a ridiculous concept that that is how we should judge dogs. 'Best in breed,' means that you happen to be closest to this thing that has been written on a piece of paper is what you should look like. It takes in no account of your temperament, your fitness for purposes of potentiality of a pet animal. And that, to me, makes absolutely no sense at all."

In an article in The Daily Mail UK, Evans added regarding cat breeding, "Exaggerated physical features can be seen including extremes of size, very long fur, short legs, flat faces, all of which may lead to unnecessary pain, discomfort, illness and or behavioral problems."

"If you speak to dog breeders, father/daughter breeding, in particular, and father/grand-daughter breeding even, is common. They must know that this is going to cause problems," said geneticist Steve Jones of the University College London. "If the dog breeders insist on going down this road, I can say with confidence really, that there is a universe of suffering waiting for many of these breeds. And many, if not most of these breeds, will not survive. They will get so inbred that they will be unable to reproduce and their genes will come to a dead end."

These problems are not restricted to the UK, but everywhere in the world where competition breeding is practiced. The televised report, not without some controversy, had, and continues to have, an impact on those involved in pet breeding. You can read more about all this at Wikipedia and also at the program's producer, Jemima Harrison's blog.

Like I said, I hated to bring this up, but reality bites. I want to end by noting that most pet owners who have pedigree animals are just as much victims of these misguided breeding practices as the pets themselves who love their animals very dearly, and often are unaware of the damage selective breeding causes and find themselves paying huge veterinary bills to care for their pets.


"I used to be able to name every nut that there was. And it used to drive my mother crazy, because she used to say, 'Harlan Pepper, if you don't stop naming nuts,' and the joke was that we lived in Pine Nut, and I think that's what put it in my mind at that point. So she would hear me in the other room, and she'd just start yelling. I'd say, 'Peanut. Hazelnut. Cashew nut. Macadamia nut.' That was the one that would send her into going crazy. She'd say, 'Would you stop naming nuts!' And Hubert used to be able to make the sound, he couldn't talk, but he'd go 'rrrawr rrawr' and that sounded like Macadamia nut. Pine nut, which is a nut, but it's also the name of a town. Pistachio nut. Red pistachio nut. Natural, all natural white pistachio nut...."

Just a few quick scientific facts and trivia:

1. Peanuts aren't nuts, they're peas.

"Peanut butter was developed in 1890 by a doctor in St. Louis. He gave it to his patients with bad teeth."

"Americans consume 3,750,000 pounds of peanuts daily in all forms including confections, bakery items, soups, desserts, ice cream and mixed nuts."

2. Walnuts aren't nuts, they're seeds.

"Because walnuts resemble the brain, they were believed in medieval times to be able to cure headaches. More recently, NASA has used pulverized walnut shells as thermal insulation in the nose cones of its rockets."

"The oldest walnut remains were discovered in Iraq, and they are believed to be from 50,000 B.C."

3. Cashews aren't nuts, they're also seeds.

"Unlike Brazil nuts, cashews really do come from Brazil. The Portuguese planted them in Goa [India] in the late 1500s and from there they spread through Asia and Africa."

"When buying 'raw cashews' in the store, take note that these nuts have actually been steamed and are not entirely raw. This is because raw cashews contain urushiol, which is the same chemical that you’d find in poison ivy. It can cause the body to have a very similar reaction to one experienced from poison oak or ivy. If a high level of urushiol is ingested, it can be deadly. Cashew poisoning is rare, but those who handle them in order to manufacture them to get the shell off sometimes experience the side-effects."

3. Pistachios aren't nuts, they're also seeds.

"They are called 'the smiling nut' in Iran and 'the happy nut' in China. People in the Middle East sometimes refer to the pistachio as the 'smiling pistachio.' In those same countries, if you are sitting under a Pistachio tree and you hear the shells snapping open, it is a sign of good luck."

"The real story of red pistachios isn't that interesting. Years ago when pistachios were all imported into the U.S., the antiquated harvesting and processing methods in the Middle East often left blemishes on the hulls. So they dyed them to mask the unsightly marks. They figured the bright red color would also draw more attention to them in vending machines where they had to compete with Good N'Plentys."

4. Almonds aren't nuts, they're also seeds.

"Almonds are one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 43:11) the other is the pistachio nut. Japanese teenagers enjoy snacking on a mixture of dried sardines and slivered almonds. It takes 1000 pounds of almonds to make 1 pint of almond oil."

"The [Ancient] Romans showered newlyweds with almonds as a fertility charm."

5. Macadamia nuts aren't nuts, they're nut kernels.

"We all connect the macadamia nut to Hawaii but it originated in the rain forests of Queensland, Australia. It was brought to Hawaii in the late 19th century where much of the world’s supply is grown today."

"The macadamia was classified and named by Baron Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller, Director for the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne and later an internationally acclaimed fellow of the Royal Society of London, and Walter Hill, first superintendent of the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. It is named in honor of Mueller's good friend, Dr. John Macadam, a noted lecturer in practical and theoretical chemistry at the University of Melbourne, civil servant, and a member of Parliament."

Honey Roasted Mixed Nuts
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Yield: 1 pound

1 pound mixed nuts (raw or dry-roasted), mix of peanuts, almonds, cashews, and/or walnuts
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons butter or oil
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

If using raw nuts, preheat oven to 350* and bake, spread out in a baking pan, for about 10-12 minutes. Shake pan once or twice. Allow to cool. Pour into mixing bowl.

Heat honey, water, and butter (or microwave until melted). Stir honey-butter in with nuts until nuts are completely coated and liquid is almost all absorbed.

Mix sugar, salt & cinnamon together. Toss nuts with sugar mix.

Spread nuts back onto the baking pan and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Let cool completely.

Official Best in Show Website
Official Fred Willard site
Pedigree Dogs Exposed BBC site
"Quite Interesting Facts about Nuts," @ The Telegraph UK

Best in Show DVD
Nuts in the Kitchen: More Than 100 Recipes for Every Taste and Occasion, by Susan Hermann

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