Monthly Archives: January 2014

Super Bowl Ads Go Healthy: Selling Yogurt With A Steamy Kiss

We’re all accustomed to Super Bowl ads for chips and soda and beer.

But it’s a new day. And, this year, we’ll also get pitched on healthier fare.

For starters, there will be lots of yogurt ads — both Dannon and Chobani will make a play for game-time viewers. Pistachios will make their debut. And Cheerios will keep it interesting, too.

Now, in order to overcome the better-for-you snooze factor, companies are turning to sex appeal, star power and intimate father-daughter moments to create a buzz.

Take the Dannon ad for its Greek-style Oikos. The vibe is decidedly steamy. It stars actor John Stamos (who starred in the TV sitcom Full House in the early ’90s, around the same time he was named one of People magazine’s most beautiful people).

In the ad, Stamos has a dab of yogurt kissed from his lip by a beautiful woman.

Now, sales of yogurt have grown steadily in recent years. And moms and kiddos are eating plenty of it. So who is Dannon trying to appeal to here?

Everyone, it turns out. With a huge audience on Sunday, spanning multiple generations, Dannon hopes to catch the attention of lots of folks.

But “the big opportunity for us is with 20- and 30-somethings,” says Art D’Elia, vice president of marketing at Dannon.

Meanwhile, General Mills has already generated buzz for its ad slated to air Sunday, which features a bi-racial family.

Don’t look for any talk about nutrition or taste in this ad. The pitch is for something bigger than just a bowl of cereal.

The aim is to promote family together time. General Mills has joined efforts with a non-profit, The Family Dinner Project, which is promoting the same message. The joint project is called the Family Breakfast Project.

“It’s important for us to be more than … a circular O, that’s made of oats and doesn’t have a lot of sugar,” Doug Martin, marketing manager for Cheerios, told us.

When families sit around the breakfast table, it’s the experience that he hopes folks will connect to the Cheerios brand.

Now, how to jazz up nuts?

The folks at Wonderful Pistachios are hoping that funnyman Stephen Colbert can help boost their brand.

Just don’t expect Colbert to educate us on the fiber and protein content of nuts. Nope. This spot is likely to be much more playful.

So, if companies are increasingly pitching more healthful foods, why don’t we hear much about, well healthfulness?

Advertising and marketing expert Bob McKinnon of Galewill Design says there’s a risk of coming off as preachy, which isn’t so effective.

Health is not as important a motivator when it comes to getting consumers to buy as “appealing to people at a direct, human level,” McKinnon told us.

So, playing to people’s emotions, to sex appeal, or to an ideal — such as a strong family bond — can all be powerful ways to connect with consumers, McKinnon says.

Now, of course, the Super Bowl ad line-up still includes lots of pitches for beer, chips and chocolate. For instance, M&Ms didn’t miss the chance to capitalize on twerking, Miley Cyrus-style.

And a few new Dorito ads are scheduled to air.

This one elicited quite a reaction from my colleagues here. Lots of us at The Salt agreed: We were grossed out. For us, it didn’t pass the taste test. But maybe an ick vibe makes it more memorable?

We asked McKinnon.

“There are a lot of young people and young guys who [will be] watching the Super Bowl who are probably going to find that hilarious.”

At Home, With Mom And Her Murderous Beau

Depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), give the wounded and desperate Frank (Josh Brolin) a ride, only to realize that Frank is an escaped convict being hunted by local police.i i

hide captionDepressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), give the wounded and desperate Frank (Josh Brolin) a ride, only to realize that Frank is an escaped convict being hunted by local police.

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush

Depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), give the wounded and desperate Frank (Josh Brolin) a ride, only to realize that Frank is an escaped convict being hunted by local police.

Depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), give the wounded and desperate Frank (Josh Brolin) a ride, only to realize that Frank is an escaped convict being hunted by local police.

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush

Labor Day

  • Director: Jason Reitman
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running time: 111 minutes

Rated PG-13

With Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith

So here’s the setup: It’s 1987. Frank, a convicted murderer, has escaped from a New Hampshire prison, and he’s holding Adele, a fragile divorcee, and her 12-year-old son, Henry, captive in their own house until they eat his chili.

Turns out it’s good chili — so good that it inspires Adele, whom the handsome convict has tied up very gently and tenderly, to reminisce about a conversation she and her son had about his sex education class. Seriously, it’s some good chili. And did I mention that Frank is handsome?

Later, Adele will free herself, and Frank — who must’ve been a big help around the prison — will start doing household chores. Changing the oil in the car, replacing the filter on the furnace, washing the floor and waxing it, teaching Henry (whom he calls Hank) to throw a baseball.

All of which is nothing next to what happens when a neighbor leaves a brimming bushel basket at their door. Soon he and Henry and Adele are all plunging hands into a big bowl of cut peaches — massaging them into submission, I guess.

At which point Frank says, “What I want to talk about is crust,” and there’s another montage of hands smushing sugar, flour and butter. Dough is rolled and piled high with filling, with half reserved for the moment when Frank guides Adele’s hands toward the pie plate and together, they, in his words, “put the roof on this house.”

At this point, Tobey Maguire — who appears in the film only as the voice of an adult Henry — tells us that Adele’s “hands started shaking beyond her control.”

And who could blame them? Hilarious, right? Except the movie is entirely straight-faced. I kept thinking, “The guy who made Juno made this? The guy who made Up in the Air?” It’s the sort of overcooked melodrama that used to be called a “woman’s picture,” though no one would call it that now for fear of insulting women.

Kate Winslet trembles vulnerably as Josh Brolin does the studly perfection thing, making it seem that all any woman really needs around the house is a convicted murderer. The filming is as polished as you’d expect from Jason Reitman, and parts of the picture are reasonably suspenseful. (Mostly that’s because the music keeps having conniptions every time Brolin comes into a room, but also because kidnapping stories rarely work out well.)

Labor Day may be filled with autumn’s falling leaves, but it makes sense that they’re bringing it out as a prelude to spring, for the sap — and I do mean sap — is rising.

On Urban Streets, Off-Roaders Stir A Noisy Conversation

The Kickstarter-funded 12 O'Clock Boys, director Lotfy Nathan's first film, examines whether dirt bikes keep kids from joining gangs or if they just invent new problems for urban Baltimore.

hide captionThe Kickstarter-funded 12 O’Clock Boys, director Lotfy Nathan’s first film, examines whether dirt bikes keep kids from joining gangs or if they just invent new problems for urban Baltimore.

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

12 O’Clock Boys

  • Director: Lotfy Nathan
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 76 minutes

Not rated; language and a few violent images


“This is our tradition, our culture, our release.”

So says one of the 12 O’Clock Boys — a large group of dirt bike and ATV enthusiasts who, depending on your perspective, either grace or terrorize the streets of Baltimore each Sunday with acrobatic feats on their motorbikes. They weave through the city traffic, popping extended wheelies, the line of their bikes almost at vertical, approximating the hands of a clock at noon.

Lotfy Nathan’s documentary seems, at first, to be something we’ve seen before. Over the course of three years, he follows Pug, a sweet, small-for-his-age 13-year-old who aspires to two things: to parlay his love of animals into a veterinary career, and to one day ride with the big boys. For now, he’s practicing doughnuts and wheelies on an adorable miniature ATV.

This is the story of a struggle against inner-city adversity, one talented child finding his escape, avoiding gang life through a potentially more positive, less violent community tradition, right?

But Nathan’s film defies easy categorization; he’s interested in neither telling that fairy tale nor painting issues in broad strokes. He leaves the latter to the characters in the film, characters who excel at presenting the rigid, dueling perspectives on two sides of a wide divide; Nathan is more keen on challenging the viewer to jump into the gray area between.

The case against the riders is presented mainly via news footage, with local reporters and public figures discussing the public-safety threat supposedly presented by the 12 O’Clock Boys. One talk-radio host, in opening the film, brings in a particularly incendiary and racially charged perspective to show the worst of this side of the argument.

Nathan spends most of his first-person camera time with Pug and the riders, and it’s from that side that he gets the “tradition, culture and release” side of the story. From them, too, comes theargument that riding keeps these young men out of gangs; when you ride a bike, it “makes you neutral” in the eyes of Baltimore’s gang factions, explains one rider.

The appeal of stunt riding is heightened by Nathan’s visual flair for capturing the 12 O’Clock Boys in their element. Shooting them with a high-speed camera, the director slows down the stunts and the triumphant facial expressions into gorgeous super-slow-motion interludes, while Joe Williams’ score imbues the sequences with a balletic grace. These are real riders, but they’re rendered here as one imagines they might appear in Pug’s idealized dreams.

But neither of those two perspectives tell the whole story. Police, forbidden to engage in high speed chases, can mitigate the real public safety concerns only to a certain degree — and the dangers to the community are real.

Meanwhile, the question of how effective riding can be at turning lives around is one more individual than universal; it may have worked for Steve, a former 12 O’Clock Boy who now sticks to the sidelines and helps kids find safe environments in which to learn to ride. But it’s still an open question as to how things are going to work out for others.

Concentrating on Pug’s development from age 13 to age 16 allows the documentary to show a huge amount of transformation over its relatively brief running time. And not all of it is positive. Early on we see a child who’s too often wandering unsupervised, wistfully watching a gathering of riders he’s still too young to join, his desperate desire for acceptance all over his face. Over the three years, though, we see that face and demeanor harden, as Pug adopts the rituals of a boy acting like a man. He talks remorselessly about beating up a kid at school. He barks sullenly at the filmmaker he used to perform enthusiastically for. He kicks at his dog.

And is it any wonder? The one naively trusting act Pug engages in during the film’s latter portion results in his losing his most prized possession. Nathan’s film gets at a difficult and sobering fact: Pug’s world is one that often rewards only hard detachment and distrust. That’s a cultural tradition perhaps even more entrenched than the dirt bikes, and one from which it’s more difficult to find release. (Recommended)

‘Charlie Victor Romeo': In Crisis In The Cockpit

Sam Zuckerman, Noel Dinneen and Nora Woolley play various airplane pilots in Charlie Victor Romeo, a white-knuckle docudrama with dialogue taken from the voice recorders of six planes that crashed between 1985 and 1996.i i

hide captionSam Zuckerman, Noel Dinneen and Nora Woolley play various airplane pilots in Charlie Victor Romeo, a white-knuckle docudrama with dialogue taken from the voice recorders of six planes that crashed between 1985 and 1996.

Collective: Unconscious

Sam Zuckerman, Noel Dinneen and Nora Woolley play various airplane pilots in Charlie Victor Romeo, a white-knuckle docudrama with dialogue taken from the voice recorders of six planes that crashed between 1985 and 1996.

Sam Zuckerman, Noel Dinneen and Nora Woolley play various airplane pilots in Charlie Victor Romeo, a white-knuckle docudrama with dialogue taken from the voice recorders of six planes that crashed between 1985 and 1996.

Collective: Unconscious


Watch the trailer.

By the end of Charlie Victor Romeo, almost 800 people will be dead, with hundreds more injured. But this methodical film, adapted from a theater piece first performed in 1999, doesn’t actually show any of that carnage. It focuses tightly — very tightly — on a few people who are trying to prevent disaster.

Those people are at the controls of six airplanes that crashed between 1985 and 1996; their dialogue is taken from cockpit voice recorders, or CVRs — “charlie victor romeo” in the NATO phonetic alphabet.

Everything the principal actors say was uttered, in a crisis, by a real person, although the sometimes frantic chatter has been edited for clarity by authors Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory. It was they who first constructed the script for Collective: Unconscious, a New York theater group.

Berger and Daniels, joined by Karlyn Michelson, also directed the movie, using only one gambit to “open it up” for the big screen: They filmed in 3-D. I was unable to preview the movie in that format, but the technique reportedly adds to the film’s claustrophobic intensity, which is already considerable.

Charlie Victor Romeo‘s first chapter takes it easy on viewers, and on passengers; no one dies when this flight’s smug aviators clip some trees and miss the runway on an approach to a Connecticut airport. What’s memorable about this misguided trip is the way a pilot informs passengers that “it might be a little choppy,” while smirking privately that “they’ll be throwing up.”

None of the other flights lands that smoothly. Pilots scramble to deal with planes that have been disabled by bird strikes, lost their hydraulic systems or took to the air without any data system at all, thanks to a ground crew’s sloppiness.

Routinely uneasy air travelers will probably not be reassured to learn that the last debacle happened in Peru.

Included among the incidents is the worst single-plane disaster in history, the 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Osaka. Multiple ground-control voices bark at the crew members as they search for a flat place to land the disabled airliner in that mountainous country, before finally crashing on a remote ridge.

There’s a lot more to this story, which I remember well because I was in Japan at the time. Only four of 524 people on board survived; some passengers likely died on the ground after the Japanese government declined the American military’s offer to provide medical assistance.

Such information is scrupulously excluded from Charlie Victor Romeo, which never leaves the cockpits of the six endangered aircraft. All that matters here is procedure, even under the most dangerous circumstances.

That the same performers keep returning in different roles, playing Peruvian and Japanese flyers as well as American ones, only adds to the sense of man as machine. Everything, and everyone, must run like clockwork. Yet no apparatus is foolproof.

Of course, the movie also shows frivolous moments before crisis strikes. One of the episodes begins in sex-comedy mode, with a flirtatious flight attendant and a pilot who follows her out of the cockpit. Then the wings ice up, and another white-knuckle ride begins.

On Campus, Two Weary Souls Find A Spark To Kindle

Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga star as two weary strangers who meet — and spark mutual midlife awakenings — while taking their kids on a college tour.

hide captionAndy Garcia and Vera Farmiga star as two weary strangers who meet — and spark mutual midlife awakenings — while taking their kids on a college tour.

Anchor Bay Films

At Middleton

  • Director: Adam Rodgers
  • Genre: Romance
  • Running Time: 99 minutes

Rated R

With: Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga, Andy Garcia

Long after many another serviceable movie premise has gone to its grave, the brief encounter will live and be well.

Talk about an unbeatable package: Nothing more urgently captures the disappointment of lives congealed by routine than does the sudden midlife romance; nothing so pointedly speaks to the undying desire for completion by another who understands and accepts us as no one else does; nothing so completely resounds with the fantasy of escape. And nothing so neatly contains all that unruly desire within the 11th-hour return to common sense and responsible self-sacrifice.

At Middleton, a deft little bonbon squirreled away in the dumping ground of January releases, is not the first to frame this premise in the watershed moment of departure for college. Like The Kids Are All Right, Admission and last year’s Enough Said, the movie brings renewed life and libido, with all the attendant pleasures and dangers, to two unhappy middle-aged strangers.

On paper, George (Andy Garcia) and Edith (Vera Farmiga) seem unlikely to mesh. He’s a cardiac surgeon and bona fide stiff, all tan chinos and bow tie; she’s a free spirit with a tongue pickled in vinegar.

What they share, though, is that old change-of-life panic, plus the growing recognition that they have lost touch with the offspring each has brought to tour the kind of sun-dappled liberal arts campus that lends itself to creative release.

Symmetries abound. Like George, Edith’s daughter Audrey (played by Farmiga’s sister Taissa) needs to lighten up. Like Edith, George’s son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) needs to free himself from constraint and get on with his thing. The kids get up to some stuff, but the movie’s energies pulse chiefly in their elders’ rite of passage.

George allows Edith to pry him loose from a terminally boring college tour and lead him on a not terribly wild ride around campus. Bikes are ridden, panoramic views savored, prissy parents taken down a notch or five. Then comes a visit to a drama class, where George and Edith quit pussyfooting around and lay their cards of quiet misery and yearning on the table.

At Middleton has few fresh insights to offer about that heart-in-mouth moment when parents wake up to the fact that 18 years of busy devotion to their children are about to be dismantled, and they’re going to have to craft new lives again — especially if, like George and Edith, they’re marooned in marriages that have run out of steam.

Still, director Adam Rodgers, who co-wrote the lively screenplay with producer Glenn German, carries us through his characters’ enlightenment with a sprightly touch. The movie is a smooth ensemble piece, enlivened by brief turns from the great Peter Riegert as a wacked-out campus radio DJ and Tom Skerritt as a guru professor who recalibrates Audrey’s priorities in the direction of fun.

But though it’s fun to watch Garcia let out his inner goofball, the jewels in the crown of At Middleton are the dynamic sisters Farmiga. With their glittering sapphire eyes and elevated cheekbones, they look like medieval religious icons, but neither is a still life. They can do sad or overwrought or frosty on demand, but the movie brings out the screwball leading ladies in both.

To see the elastic Vera, whose 2004 breakthrough as a junkie housewife in Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone­ locked her into mostly tragic or forbidding roles, fling herself about with deceptive abandon — then settle into rue and regret without missing a beat — is joy enough to cruise us happily toward an ending we can see coming a mile off.

Small Cinemas Struggle As Film Fades Out Of The Picture

The Roxie Theater in San Francisco still has two 35 millimeter projectors, but the switch to digital is inevitable.i i

hide captionThe Roxie Theater in San Francisco still has two 35 millimeter projectors, but the switch to digital is inevitable.

Laura Sydell/NPR

The Roxie Theater in San Francisco still has two 35 millimeter projectors, but the switch to digital is inevitable.

The Roxie Theater in San Francisco still has two 35 millimeter projectors, but the switch to digital is inevitable.

Laura Sydell/NPR

Cinema owners who you don’t have a digital projector in their movie house can’t show Paramount Pictures’ latest release: The Wolf of Wall Street. This year Paramount became the first big studio to distribute a major release in the U.S. entirely in a digital format, and other studios are likely to follow.

Most big theaters around the country are ready for the change, but it may threaten many of the nation’s smaller cinemas which are struggling to raise money for the transition.

‘We Either Had To Convert Or Close The Doors’

Dozens of small cinemas have taken to Kickstarter. The Tampa Pitcher Show has been trying to raise $30,000. It’s got a video up that includes a group of regulars who dress up and perform at screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They’re dancing until the lights go dark. “We’ve got to start showing our movies digitally otherwise we’re not going to be able to show them at all,” one of the performers says.

So far, the Kickstarter campaign for the Tampa Pitcher Show isn’t going well.

Still, fans of neighborhood cinemas like it are pitching in because they say small local movie houses offer more to the community than a multiplex — they are social centers where people can act out The Rocky Horror Picture Show and see locally made films and live events.

But, first-run movies pay the bills and Tampa Pitcher Show owner Wayne Valenti says he was taken by surprise when he got a letter in early December from Paramount announcing it would cease distributing most movies on film by Dec. 31.

“They just really gave a short straw notice on the thing,” he says, “and we either had to convert or close the doors basically.”

It’s not as if Valenti didn’t know this day would come — the movie studios have been giving warnings for years that the end of film is nigh, according to Isabel Fondevila, director of the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. “[Distributors] keep sending us letters,” she says, “like, ‘Heads up. We’re not going to have anything else but DCP so get ready.'”

DCP stands for Digital Cinema Package, which is what the studios are calling the new digital equipment and distribution system. The Roxie is the oldest continuously running theater in the country, according to Fondevila.

An Inevitable Switch To Digital

To see its legendary projection booth, I climb a narrow flight of wood stairs. The Roxie has two big, hulky 35-millimeter projectors screwed to the floor. Jim Lung, who’s been a projectionist at the Roxie for over 30 years, threads the film, lights the lamps and finally flips the switch. Then, I hear that familiar slapping-like sound of film making its way through the projector — a sound that will soon vanish. Lung is not looking forward to the change because he doesn’t like the look of digital.

“When you can actually sit there and you can see pores on people’s skin, it’s like, ‘What happened here?’ ” Lung says. “You can actually see some makeup on them …. In the old days you would never see that.”

Related NPR Stories

Lung’s not alone in his love of film — Quentin Tarantino says he’ll quit when he can’t shoot in film and at Christopher Nolan’s insistence, Paramount will make his next feature, Interstellar, available on film.

But, the change to digital distribution is inevitable. It’s cheaper for the studios and easier to make digital copies than film prints. Fortunately, the Roxie can take more time converting because it’s a nonprofit that runs mostly art house films. But, it will need over $100,000 to outfit both its screens. To get that money, Roxie director Fondevila says she needs “a miracle … or something like it.”

Fondevila can find some hope across town at the Balboa Theatre. On a recent weekend, it was showing The Princess Bride, which theater owner Adam Bergeron says he had been unable to show before his cinema went digital.

Bergeron did a Kickstarter and raised over $100,000, which was enough to upgrade both of the Balboa’s screens. Bergeron has some nostalgia for film. But, he says as a small theater, it’s really important to have the right movie at the right time. Studios make a limited number of film prints; making digital copies is a lot easier.

“It’s not as huge of a process as striking a 35-millimeter print is,” Bergeron says. “So it’s made it easier to get movies.”

Though Bergeron has had success, a quick look at Kickstarter shows many campaigns by small neighborhood theaters have failed. The National Association of Theatre Owners says of the nation’s 40,000 screens about 37,000 have gone digital, but it seems likely that at least a few may end up going dark instead.

‘Spirit Of Family’ Unites Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Ladysmith Black Mambazo Performs At NPR Headquarters

  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in the South African town of Ladysmith in 1964. While on their latest U.S. tour, they stopped by NPR studios for a performance chat.

  • Host Michel Martin walks into Studio 1.

  • The group perform "Homeless," the song that Paul Simon recorded for his album Graceland.

  • The band's tight vocal harmonies and messages of peace have earned them audiences from around the world.

  • Many of the group members are related. Albert Mazibuko (second from the left) proudly watches his nephew Babuyile Shabalala introduce the song "Vimba." Shabalala is also the grandson of the group's founder Joseph Shabalala.

  • The group had a special friendship with the late Nelson Mandela, who saw them as musical ambassadors for South Africa.

For fans of world music, South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo need no introduction.

The group have been singing a capella together for 50 years, brought together by Joseph Shabalala, a young farmhand turned factory worker from the town of Ladysmith. He had a dream of tight vocal harmonies and messages of peace.

That dream developed, and the band came to the attention of Paul Simon who had them record “Homeless” on his album Graceland. It introduced them to the world.

Albert Mazibuko, Joseph Shabalala’s cousin and one of the last original members of the group, tells NPR’s Tell Me More that he remembers knowing instantly that there was something special about the song. “After we recorded the song, I listened to it, and I said to myself, this is the song that is going to give us the wings,’ he says.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo just learned they won their fourth Grammy – this one for Best World Music Album for Live: Singing for Peace around the World — while on a U.S. tour. “I felt like I was flying,” Mazibuko says. “We have won Grammys, but this one is very important because it’s dedicated to the man who dedicated his life to peace.”

That man is Nelson Mandela, and the group had a special relationship with him from the moment they met in 1990. “He shook hands with us and said, keep [up] the good job guys. Your music has been a great inspiration to me while I was in jail,” Mazibuko remembers. “From there, he never let us go. Everywhere he goes, he wants Ladysmith Black Mambazo to be there.”

Mazibuko believes that the group’s close relationship is key to its success. “I think the spirit of family, that’s what keeps the group together,” he says. But over the years they have also experienced the loss of band members Ben and Headman Shabalala, and of Joseph’s wife, Nellie, whom they honor on their new album Always With Us: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Our Family Matriarch, Nellie Shabalala. Mazibuko says that singing has helped the group through their grief. “Even when we lose people, the music has been there to comfort us,” he says. “When we hear the bad news, we always come together and sing and pray.”

Joseph Shabalala, the group’s leader, is not on their current tour as he recovers from surgery. But his grandson, Babuyile, is performing in America for the first time. As the third generation in the family to sing in the group, he believes it’s very important to keep their musical tradition going. “It’s been very humbling to see the people’s responses and how much people appreciate this music and how much people really love it.”

Historical Trauma Makes For Thrilling Fiction In ‘Officer And A Spy’

An Officer and a Spy

Courtesy of Random House

For the historical novelist, the past sometimes seems like one great filing cabinet of material that may lend itself to successful novelization. And in the case of France’s so-called “Belle Epoque,” the gifted English writer Robert Harris seems to have opened the right drawer. His latest novel, An Officer and a Spy, is set during this period of peace and prosperity between the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the lead-up to the First World War. As commerce prospered and the military began to recover from its crushing defeat by Germany, France nurtured at its heart one of the world’s great miscarriages of justice: the Dreyfus affair.

In 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer from eastern France, was tried and convicted on false charges of spying for the Germans, and sentenced to life in the brutal and primitive penal colony of Devil’s Island off the coast of Venezuela. Two years later, exonerating evidence came to light, but the French Army quickly squashed it — leading to a massive public outcry. After a multi-year struggle, Dreyfus was fully exonerated and went on to serve with distinction in World War I.

The entire affair — the innocent Jewish officer at the center, the melodramatic villain of a soldier who turns out to be the actual spy, the operatically buffoonish military brass, the crusading newspaper editors and lawyers and famous novelist Emile Zola rising to the defense — couldn’t have been more appealing to a popular fiction writer like Robert Harris. In An Officer and a Spy, he turns these matters into the stuff of entertaining and intelligent historical fiction, creating a long and deeply textured novel that will keep most general readers with an interest in espionage, politics, and justice reading through the winter.

An Officer And A Spy is Robert Harris's ninth novel.i i

hide captionAn Officer And A Spy is Robert Harris’s ninth novel.

Michael Lionstar/Courtesy of Random House

An Officer And A Spy is Robert Harris's ninth novel.

An Officer And A Spy is Robert Harris’s ninth novel.

Michael Lionstar/Courtesy of Random House

Harris chooses as his narrator the participant in these events with the sharpest sense of justice: the newly promoted Colonel Georges Picquart (a real and rather important character from French history). As the story opens, he’s taking over command of the Statistical Section, the operations arm of the French Army’s intelligence division. With this good soldier, a life-long bachelor “married” to his career, as our guide, we move through the boulevards and drawing rooms and dining rooms of Parisian society with an ease and pleasure associated with the high life, enjoying the gossip, the cuisine, the marriages and adulterous love affairs (including his own, with the wife of a senior official in the Foreign Ministry) of the Belle Epoque. Finding his new office a jumble of files and cash (for bribing informants), the new colonel goes about the business of putting his new command in order just as the events of the Dreyfus case come to light.

Picquart, as he himself puts it, soon learns his “first lesson in the cabalistic power of ‘secret intelligence': two words that can make otherwise sane men abandon their reason and cavort like idiots.” Despite evidence he unearths that suggests the real spy in the French military may be someone other than Dreyfus, his commanding officer, the at first quite sympathetic General Charles Arthur Gonse, orders him to cease his investigations. “This is an army,” the general pronounces, “not a society for debating ethics. The Minister of War gives orders to the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Staff gives orders to me, and I give orders to you. I now order you formally, and for the final time, not to investigate anything connected with the Dreyfus case, and not to disclose anything about it to anyone who isn’t authorized to receive such information. Heaven help you if you disobey. Understand?”

More Robert Harris

From this point on, Picquart is putting his career, and even his life, in jeopardy, for the sake of seeking justice in the face of the army’s cover-up, and the nation’s divided emotions. Harris, in a way, seeks justice himself, as he creates a fascinating narrative that embraces both the personal and the historical matters of this period with an alacrity and freshness. And he strikes a path between the tangle of information and the excitement of historical sleuthing that keeps a reader in a constant state of attention.

Because Harris has depicted Picquart’s story from the inside out, we get to feel the personal astonishment and outrage at the miscarriage of justice and his dedication to right the wrong. When Picquart hands his lawyer an envelope — to be opened only in the case of his death — addressed to the President of France and containing all the information he has garnered to prove Dreyfus innocent, he can see that his friend thinks he’s being quite melodramatic, the envelope perhaps “the sort of device one might encounter in a … ‘thriller.'” Says Picquart, “I would have felt the same until a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may sometimes contain more truths than all of Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together.”

At least while reading this engaging new historical thriller, you’ll find some truth in that.

Grade Inflation In The Maple Syrup Aisle: Now Everything Is An ‘A’

It's All Grade A Now: Different grades of maple syrup are displayed in East Montpelier, Vt.

hide captionIt’s All Grade A Now: Different grades of maple syrup are displayed in East Montpelier, Vt.

Toby Talbot/AP

Why would you choose a B grade if you can get an A?

Ask a baker. They’ll tell you that if you like richer, darker, more intense maple syrup, you should pick Grade B.

But the idea that B beats A seems counterintuitive to lots of consumers who are just looking for something sweet to pour on their morning pancakes.

The old and new maple syrup grading systems compared.i i

hide captionThe old and new maple syrup grading systems compared.

Courtesy of Butternut Mountain Farm

The old and new maple syrup grading systems compared.

The old and new maple syrup grading systems compared.

Courtesy of Butternut Mountain Farm

“Grade B just doesn’t sound as good as Grade A,” says Mathew Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. Even though the system has been in place for decades, to many consumers, Grade B connotes “a less-than-perfect syrup,” he says.

So this month, Vermont became the first state to give all syrup sold to consumers a grade of A, and require labels that are more descriptive of the syrup’s flavor. For example, the lightest kind of maple syrup sold, “Grade A Light Amber,” will become “Grade A Golden, Delicate Taste.” Many bottles previously labeled “Grade A Dark Amber” and those labeled “Grade B” will become “Grade A Dark, Robust Taste.”

Now, keep in mind that we’re talking about real maple syrup, sold largely in beige plastic jugs from Vermont, the country’s largest producer of the stuff – not the cheap industrial bottles lining supermarket shelves and recently banned in Vermont’s McDonald’s restaurants.

Vermont is the first jurisdiction to put international efforts to unify maple syrup standards in place. It’s important to develop one standard now that the industry is selling around the world and not just to its “next-door neighbors,” says Gordon.

Consumers need to know what to expect. Canada currently uses a numbers grading system, and the New England states where syrup is produced each have their particular additional rules on thickness. But basically, the color descriptions have to do with how much light passes through the syrup, he says.

While some small syrup makers might harrumph about the government-mandated label changes, Gordon notes that many see the move as bringing their product in line with the rest of the world when it comes to coffee, beer, olive oil, and chocolate. All of those products have fans that seek out the darker, more intensely flavored versions.

“Over time, we’ve seen a trend with folks preferring the darker, stronger-flavored syrups, and so this will allow more of that type of product to be available to consumers,” Emma Marvin, one of the owners of Butternut Mountain Farm, told our colleague over at Vermont Public Radio recently.

And unlike grade inflation in schools, this doesn’t mean they’re now giving out higher marks for inferior work, maintains Butternut Mountain Farms, one of the state’s biggest maple syrup producers.

“Removing the ‘inferior’ Grade B classification for the darkest syrups … will allow people to make a decision based upon taste rather [than] perceived quality,” the company says on its blog.

The new rules will also open up a whole new world of dark syrups to consumers. Up until now, syrups that didn’t let enough light in (geek out over here on light transmission percentages) couldn’t be sold to the public — only to the food industry for granola bars and cereals and other processed products.

That’s because decades ago, it used to be difficult to make a dark syrup that was still considered pure.

Now, unless there is an “off taste” — like a chemical aftertaste or bitterness from the sap of trees with too many buds, Gordon says — those syrups can be marketed as “Grade A Very Dark.”


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