Friday, August 30, 2013

Of Bumps and Rumps

The only thing surprising about Myley Cyrus’ act at the VMA is that anyone much noticed. It must have been a slow day for gossip, which takes up so much even of what we call “legitimate news” nowadays. It wasn’t a slow day otherwise – e.g. Syria and worrisome economic data.    

Fame always has been accorded to a favored few in human society, but “celebrity” in the modern sense began with the 20th century. The difference between old-fashioned fame and newfangled celebrity is the sense of familiarity made possible by modern media. Prior to the 20th century, even a dedicated theater buff might see a favorite actor a handful of times; a presidential candidate might be seen by a voter once, if at all. The famous always were distant from the rest of us, and, unless wildly distinctive in appearance, unrecognizable to us when out of context. The movies changed all that. The faces, personal mannerisms, and, with the advent of talkies, the voices of the famous became as familiar to us as those of our neighbors – maybe more so. Celebrity, in consequence, became much more a province of entertainers and artists than of industrialists, aristocrats, and politicians. Television gave the final push by taking celebrities off the big screen, cutting them down to human size, and bringing them into our living rooms. Successful actors, hosts, newscasters, and “media personalities” (people more famous for being famous than for doing anything in particular) became present in our homes more often than most of our actual friends and family. They became what film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel called Intimate Strangers in his influential 1986 book of the same name.

The familiarity was all one way, of course. In the early days of the Kennedy Administration, JFK buddy Frank Sinatra was buttonholed by Sam Rayburn (D-Texas). Rayburn was Speaker of the House of Representatives, as he had been for years, and the second most powerful man in the United States; the current House Office Building is named after him. Sam was a man sure of his importance, and accustomed to recognition and deference in DC. Frank Sinatra had no clue who he was, and simply said “Hands off, creep!” It was a sure sign to where social power and importance had shifted. Far more ordinary people fantasize about being like Frank (and his successors) than like Sam.

Schickel was prompted to write his book in large part by the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan that injured four, including, most grievously, James Brady. The shooter, John Hinckley, Jr., had no special beef with the President. Hinckley had no political point as did the anarchist Czolgolz or the Confederate sympathizer Booth. In a sense, the President, who himself owed his position to his celebrity, wasn’t really the target. The point was celebrity itself, and the target was an actress whom Hinckley wanted to impress.

John Hinckley, Jr.: “Jodie Foster may continue to outwardly ignore me for the rest of my life but I have made an impression on that young lady that will never fade from her mind. I am with Jodie spiritually every day and every night. I have made her one of the most famous actresses in the world. Everybody but everybody knows about John and Jodie. We are a historical couple whether Jodie likes it or not.”

It’s an appalling statement, but is it wrong? By the 1980s, even our assassins and psychopaths had become shallow celebrity-grubbers. In the decades since, the trend only has intensified. In the arts, celebrity is sought for its own sake, and with an entirely good conscience. Thousands struggle to claw their way onto the stage of American Idol and its clones.

It wasn’t always this way with celebrities. There had been a foretaste of it in the 1920s, to be sure, but in the 30s and early 40s celebrities went to great lengths to pretend they were just folks. OK, maybe they could afford a tennis court in the back yard as we couldn’t, but they weren’t so very different really. In Stage Door Canteen, starlets were happy to date innocent-eyed Midwestern privates en route to the war. (Uh-huh.) After this phase, artists of all types from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s became possessed by the notion that they were on a mission – that they served a deeper social purpose. (Yes, really.) Marlon Brando captured the imagination of the intelligentsia because he seemed to reveal the human soul in his roles rather than just follow George Burns' advice, “remember your lines and don’t trip over the furniture.” The puzzling scratches and splashes of the Abstract Expressionists were supposed to mean something, and critics argued over what it might be. The Beat Poets took their poetry seriously – as did their listeners. The worst thing an artist could do was “sell out.” Oh, it was perfectly OK to accept a big paycheck, but only for something that didn’t violate one’s integrity as an artist. It all sounds so incredibly quaint and naïve these days, but so many people really thought that way. It sometimes reached ludicrous proportions, as in the fierce reaction against Bob Dylan for going electric, which seemed to acoustic folk purists to be the same as going commercial – as selling out. Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival reportedly said, “If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now.” (At the time, the argument was afoot that acoustic folk music was the authentic “voice of the people” – which begged the question “which people?”) Dylan simply thought amped instruments enriched his sound, as indeed they did. I doubt it bothered him that he sold more records on account of the change.

In the ensuing decades, we shrugged off all that. Even Brando was happy to do a bit part in Superman for a paycheck by the late 70s and to ham it up in The Island of Dr. Moreau in the 90s. We’ve never re-shouldered those Beat Era burdens. No one worries much about selling out anymore – in fact, the opportunity to sell out is precisely what we desperately want.

I don’t mean to say there are no longer new artists with integrity and no new works of artistic significance. Of course there are, and many individuals appreciate them. But we no longer think of them as a broader and deeper social force in quite the same way as was once common. Few people aspire first and foremost to be “an artist of integrity.” The money and glam are more than adequate, thank you very much. If twerking a teddy bear can up our buzz and screen time, so be it.

Bob Dylan on the Response to Going Electric

Friday, August 23, 2013

Say Ah

By good fortune rather than by good habits, my health has been pretty robust throughout my life (to date) with two exceptions, and the two may be related. When I was an infant I picked up a serious respiratory infection from some visitor to the household and was treated with the new wonder antibiotic of the day: tetracycline. It did the trick, but there are side effects which weren’t known until a generation had grown up with them. Tetracycline given to anyone under the age of 8 can stain the permanent teeth and might (or might not – the early illnesses themselves could be the culprit) be associated with other dental problems. Whether there is a connection or not, since that first bad resp-infection, my dentists have been the only health practitioners to drain my wallet. Against expectation, given all the work done in my mouth, I’ve so far kept all 32 teeth, but only thanks to a quantity of silver, gold, and porcelain that presently exceeds my remaining natural enamel. No year goes by without drills, filling(s), and/or a cap. Yesterday, I had another old favorite: the root canal.

If bioengineering gets a lot better, let me suggest importing into humans whatever shark genes are responsible for letting sharks grow new replacement teeth throughout their lives. This seems a more elegant solution than trying to make our choppers last 80 years when they rarely (without significant intervention) are good for 40. Of course, that would mean we’d always be teething. No wonder sharks are cranky.

In modern dentistry, the biggest pain comes at the checkout desk when one is handed the bill. To the refrain, “Do you have insurance?” which I’ve heard at the desk for decades, my answer was and is that I don’t. Individual dental policies cost as much as paying the dentist directly (naturally enough – insurance companies are for-profit institutions), and, since I am self-employed, any employer-provided coverage still would be paid entirely by… well, me. Historically, though, the pain delivered by the profession was more than financial. It’s only in the past century that effective local anesthetics have been available.

By and large, Paleolithic skeletons have very good teeth. So do modern hunter-gatherers – at least the ones who are primarily carnivorous. Eskimos who persist in a traditional diet of virtually all meat generally have superb teeth. Evidence of tooth decay soars in skeletons younger than 10,000 years old, the time when agriculture began. Whatever benefits the rise of farming may have brought to ancient people, the switch to a grain diet proved very hard on the teeth. Dentistry appeared quickly thereafter. Nine 9000-year-old skulls from Pakistan have been found with perfectly drilled teeth. We even know the tool used (see picture below) because a flint drill bit was found at one of the sites. We don’t know what was used to fill the holes, but (much later) ancient Mayans used gold and gems. Unlike the Mayans, however, the ancient Pakistani dentists drilled into molars, so it’s doubtful that ornament was the point. The oldest discovered intact filling is in the left top canine tooth of a 6,500-year-old skull found in Slovenia; the tooth was filled with beeswax, which I imagine had to be topped up regularly. The teeth of ancient Egyptians were terrible. Not only were caries a problem from the high-carb diet, but ancient remains show severe enamel attrition, possibly from grit, sand, and straw mixed in with the grain. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians from an early date had skilled dentists who filled cavities and wired in bridges. Full dentures (made from human and animal teeth) date back at least to 700 BC in Etruria.

These Novocain-free ancient treatments sound distinctly unpleasant. Did the dentists tie their patients down for some of these procedures? Somehow I’m feeling a little less grumpy about the hole in my checkbook now.

Flint Drill

Perhaps ancient dentists had patients like Jack Nicholson. Scene from Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Decrypt the Light Fantastic

Since my last full packet of pocket reviews in March, more DVDs have sneaked their way into my player to be bathed by laser light. This time, for a change, I’ll post a list of 10, none of which made me lament the lost time. Oh, I’ve seen more than 10 (not all of them purchases, fortunately) since March: some were of the “so bad it’s good” variety (e.g. Milk Money), but others were of the “so bad it’s still bad” (e.g. the unmemorable Total Recall remake). All of the following, however, are at least OK – a few are no more than OK, but they at least are that. A few are gems, including the first two on the list.

Employee of the Month (2004)
This film often is compared to Office Space, but it is not nearly so good natured – and that is all to its benefit. A bank employee (Matt Dillon) has a terrible day. He gets fired from his job and then his fiancé (Christina Applegate) dumps him. From there, things get very much worse. It doesn’t help that his best friend is a ne’er-do-well who works for the coroner’s office and supplements his income by robbing the bodies he picks up. One betrayal follows another in this twisted and enjoyable comedy.

Waitress (2007)
Jenna is a waitress who sublimates her emotional turmoil into an uncanny talent for baking creative and delicious pies.  The source of much of that turmoil is Earl, who, if not the worst husband on the planet, is at the very least the worst in town. Jenna dreams of winning a pie contest and using the money to leave her husband and open her own pie shop. Her plans suddenly are jeopardized when she discovers she is pregnant. Like so many of us, she feels trapped by circumstances. This might sound depressing, but in fact there is a dark humor to the film, and a message that traps of our own making can be unmade by us, too. The film left me hungry for pie. Regrettably, this was director/actress Adrienne Shelley’s last movie: shortly before its theatrical release she was murdered in her NYC apartment by a neighborhood man who botched an attempt to make her death look like suicide.

One for the Money (2012)
The appealing Katherine Heigl is better than most of her movies. A few have been commercial successes (e.g. Knocked Up), it is true, but that doesn’t make them any less dreadful. In One for the Money she has a half-decent script. She does a creditable job in her role as divorced, unemployed, and broke Stephanie Plum who goes to work for her bail bondsman cousin as a newbie bounty hunter in Trenton, NJ. She makes rookie mistakes that are more alarming than amusing. The film mixes suspense, drama, and an obligatory dollop of romance (this is a Katherine Heigl movie, after all) without going over the top. This is not a great movie by any means, nor is it one you’ll want to see again, but it isn’t actually bad. Sometimes that’s all we ask.

Closer (2004)
Unlike Waitress, this really was depressing despite the “thumbs way up” from Roger Ebert and other professional critics. I don’t disagree with Roger: this is a well written, well acted, well shot film. Just don’t come to it looking for happy endings. Closer is a prime example of the modern cynicism about life and love about which I wrote in my last blog. Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen all play disagreeable characters (the young stripper Alice, played by Natalie, is the closest to being likable) who, over the course of four years, betray each other in very human but utterly awful ways. Sometimes the ways are verbal. None of the four takes to heart Mark Twain’s comment that truth is a valuable commodity with which it is useful to be economical. Sometimes telling or demanding the whole truth serves only to cause pointless hurt; other times, causing hurt is very much the intended point. Mostly, the characters succeed in making themselves unhappy. The one ultimately to prevail in ways satisfying to himself is Larry (Clive Owen). It is hard to imagine a more civilized profession than that of a London dermatologist, yet Larry refers to himself as a “cave man,” and with good reason. Larry’s simple primate nature raises hackles but prevails over time. Yet we don’t feel glad for him, nor do we feel sad for the others. If anything we feel sad for ourselves, in case, as is likely, we are no better than these people. Director Norman Jewison famously called his 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair “a love story between two shits.” In Closer, director Mike Nichols has given us four. It is truly a love story for the 21st century.

Ruby Sparks (2012)
In Svengali (1931), the mesmerist Svengali puts the girl he loves into a trance and has her say she loves him; he then sadly releases her from the trance because “it is only Svengali talking to himself again.” In Ruby Sparks, former wunderkind author Calvin has never duplicated the success of the first novel he wrote at age 19. Furthermore, he suffers from a major case of writer’s block until he is inspired by a dream about a girl. He begins a new novel with his dream girl as the prime character. He names her Ruby. In a variation on the Pygmalion myth, somehow his imagination conjures her into reality. When he descends the stairs one morning, Ruby is in his kitchen scrambling eggs. At first she is exactly as he wrote her, but, having become a real person, she begins to develop her own independent mind, and to drift away from him. He can readjust her to suit himself, however, just by adding more words to a page. For a long time he can’t resist doing this in order to keep his hold on her, but eventually he has a Svengali moment. He realizes that whatever relationship they have means nothing unless she is free – including free to leave. Otherwise, it is just Calvin in love with himself.

The Man from Earth (2007)
This appears to have been intended originally as a stage play, since it is entirely dialogue on a single set. Plot: a professor, who is about to leave his post after 10 years, reveals to his colleagues that he is a 14,000-year-old Cro-Magnon. He says he always moves on when his lack of aging becomes noticeable. He has no explanation for his longevity, which none of his offspring ever inherited. The philosophy offered up is dubious and the emotional reactions overwrought, but at least this is different from the usual fx-heavy science fiction. If you liked Waking Life (a 2001 animated flick similarly heavy on pop philosophy), you'll probably like this, too.

Jack Reacher (2012)
Based on Lee Childs’ novel One Shot (which, by pure happenstance, I read a couple years ago, though I’m not a regular Lee Childs follower), this is a solid crime/suspense/action flick with Tom Cruise in the title role. Jack Reacher is a former detective in the military police, but is now a civilian who prefers to live under the radar. When a mass shooting takes place in Pittsburgh, all the evidence points to a former army sniper named Barr, who, as Reacher knows, once got away with a similar crime while in uniform. Reacher comes to town hoping to ensure the man is punished this time for what he did, but something about the case bothers him: the evidence is so very damning that it looks staged. But if Barr didn’t do it, who did and why? He teams up with Barr’s defense attorney, who is the daughter of the prosecutor. If the crime-action genre is one you like, this film shouldn’t disappoint.

Magic Magic (2013)
This odd movie is categorized by IMDB as a “thriller.” I’m not sure that’s right, but it is close enough. Whether from good luck or good judgment, the hardworking young actress Juno Temple more often than not chooses films that offer something different and interesting. Alicia (Juno) is a young woman with some mental health problems, but at first they don’t seem severe or in any way debilitating. We learn during the course of the movie, however, that she carries and takes a lot of pills. She arrives in Chile from California to vacation with her cousin Sarah. She stays with Sarah’s friends on an island in a Chilean lake. One of those friends is Brink (Michael Cera), a creepy character with an unwelcome interest in Alicia. Alicia feels isolated and ever more at risk with each passing day. Suffering from insomnia, Alicia grows unsure of the boundary between her dreams and reality. Are these people playing sadistic games on her or is she being paranoid? When Alicia’s mental and physical health deteriorates dangerously, will local magical folk customs and remedies help her, or will they drive her over the edge? The film achieves a spooky mood, but if you like all your questions to have neat answers, Magic Magic might not be for you. The movie reaches a conclusion of sorts, but some loose ends are left deliberately untied.

Swimming with Sharks (1994)
Hollywood loves to make movies bashing Hollywood. In this one, young man Guy (Frank Whaley) tries to get a foothold in the business by working as an assistant to studio bigshot Buddy (Kevin Spacey), who is the boss from hell. Everyone Guy meets, including his filmmaker girlfriend, is ruthlessly self-interested and manipulative. After a year of abusing Guy, Buddy hints in a phone call that he will fire him; Guy also learns his girlfriend will be meeting Buddy that night. Guy snaps, breaks into Buddy’s house and tortures him. All in all this is a wickedly funny flick. True, The Player (1992) did it even better, but this is still pretty good.

Great Balls of Fire (1989)
For a time in the 1950s, rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis was as big as Elvis. It was a short-lived equality. When news broke during Lewis’ British tour that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, his career crashed. He never recovered his popularity, though he continued to work in smaller venues and to record – and still does. Despite containing some hokey and stereotypical elements, this movie is an entertaining depiction of Lewis’ rise, fall, and survival. It stars Dennis Quaid, a young Winona Ryder, and the music of Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s hard to beat that.

Jerry Lee Lewis TV appearance (1957)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Here’s Mud in your Yi

Many recent movie critics have noted the decline of the romantic comedy (RomCom) genre, once a staple of the industry. In a blog back in April (Every Silver Lining Has a Dark Cloud) I speculated that it has run aground on contemporary cynicism. Modern audiences find it difficult to buy into  HEAs (“happily-ever-afters”). RomComs with HEA endings are still made in the 21st century, but, with few exceptions, they are pretty lousy – compare The Awful Truth (1937) to The Ugly Truth (2009). Ugly indeed. Yet, The Awful Truth couldn’t simply be remade; audiences wouldn’t credit the attitudes, values, and dialogue as realistic in the present day, even if they allow them for an earlier era. RomCom filmmakers sometimes work around this by using unrealistic characters; he’s a zombie, she’s a vampire, it’s an extraterrestrial, etc. OK, we say, maybe with a zombie things could work out. In the case of last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, one of the rare RomCom critical successes of the past decade, the characters are human enough, but they’re crazy. “Ah,” we say, “that accounts for it.” Nor are we patient when we encounter the classic plot elements of the genre. The battle of the sexes – a standard feature in RomComs – no longer much amuses us either in real life or in film; it increasingly has grown to resemble those stretches of the World War I western front in which both sides sat in their trenches and refused to engage at all.

Yet, a few interesting films have come out of the current mood. Take the indie flick Paper Heart, and the mainstream suspense film Mud.

Paper Heart was a favorite at Sundance. If you’re not familiar with the offbeat young comedian Charlyne Yi, I suggest getting acquainted, though her humor doesn’t click with everyone. Her shows are much closer to performance art than to stand-up. In 2009 she had an idea for a documentary about love and why she felt herself incapable of it. After a false start, she and Jake Johnson (for some reason calling himself Nick Jasenevec in the credits) instead created an odd hybrid film: a scripted story about Charlyne and Michael Cera is used as a framework on which to hang unscripted interviews with ordinary people from coast to coast. Michael and Charlyne already were buddies in real life at the time, but in this film they are presented as meeting for the first time. While the entire premise of Paper Heart is Charlyne’s cynicism about love, several of her interviewees plainly don’t share it. Even in such an unlikely place as an Oklahoma City biker bar she gets a lecture on true love, which shows that a “prevailing mood” is never universal. The resulting film is strangely captivating. As fair warning, customers on Amazon gave the movie almost equal numbers of 1-star and 5-star reviews. Like Yi’s routines, the movie isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I recommend giving it a shot. The trailer below is misleading; more of the film consists of her interviews than of the scripted story with Michael.

In an entirely different vein, Mud (2012) is a suspense drama starring Matthew McConaughey as Mud (yes, that’s his name) and Reese Witherspoon as Juniper. (I caught it on pay-per-view last week.) There is no skepticism at all about the existence of long-term romantic love in this film, but it certainly is made to seem like a supremely bad idea. Mud is wanted by the law for killing one of Juniper’s abusive beaus; the family of the slain man also is seeking to avenge his death. Mud and Juniper are assisted in their efforts to escape together by a starry-eyed 14-year-old boy; he idolizes the couple because they truly seem in love, unlike his parents who are getting a divorce. He eventually is disabused of his adolescent romantic notions when he realizes that neither Mud nor Juniper has the character to make anything good come out of their feelings for each other. He is left with the suspicion that maybe no one does, and that other relationships in his life (friends, family) are more important.

So, it seems modern cynicism is soil for art after all; it’s not just a poison for RomComs. Perhaps in 20 years we will enter a more hopeful and trustful era, and we’ll write about the regrettable decline of cynical cinema. “Movies are just so naïve nowadays,” we’ll complain. “They just don’t make cynical films like Mud and Paper Heart anymore.”

Thursday, August 8, 2013

One Bat, No Belfry

Last night I did battle with a home invader – a bat. Fortunately, skills I’d acquired from tussling with other invaders proved transferable.

I don’t count the mice, ants, cave crickets and other commonly expected (if uninvited) guests who show up in most of our homes. I probably shouldn’t count the live squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits brought into my house by my cats over the years, since visiting my home was not these critters’ idea. (I’ve learned to check my cats for baggage before opening the door for them, but now and then I forget and they sneak something past me.) Their idea or not, some of these feline presents have eluded me as for as much as a week once in the house. The rabbits are the easiest to catch – even when physically unharmed, they’ve been through so much that they seem scarcely to give a damn. I also don’t count the animals that freely use the outside facilities, such as the deer that swim in the pool, the wild turkey that pecks at his own reflection in the glass by my front door, or the bear that got into my garbage container.

I do count the skunk who walked into my house in back of me and nosed around before walking back out. I count the raccoons who in my absence took a screen off an open dining room window, entered the house, went to the kitchen, climbed up on the countertop, opened a bag of dry cat food, dumped it into the sink, and chowed down – they were still dining when I came home. I count the owl who must have come down the chimney – the damper was still open after a fire the night before. The owl provided the experience that helped with the bat. At first, the owl, as I shooed it, simply flew from curtain rod to curtain rod, completely ignoring the front door which I had opened wide. Finally, in a passing moment of intelligence, I remembered this was a nocturnal bird. So, I waited for the evening to grow darker; then I turned on every light in the house and shooed the owl again. This time it flew straight out the front door into the dark.
So, the bat was not up against a rookie. Once again I had interior lights blazing and a door open to the dark as I flapped a table cloth at it. The Chiropteran teased me a little, swooping to within inches of my head a few times, but soon opted for the great dark outdoors.

All in all, if I have to choose among home invaders, I’d rather they have wings or four legs. They are much more reasonable than the bipedal kind. Perhaps if I lived somewhere with larger four-legged predators, I’d reconsider the preference, but, then again, probably not.

At least my visitors have been terrestrial --so far 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Paleo Grill

Politics invades pretty much everything nowadays, and few things more than food, as the recent court decision over NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on “big gulp” sodas reaffirms. Arguments rage over GM crops, organic foods, veganism, fried foods, fat content, caffeine, junk foods, pasteurization, and so on. Many of us are not content just to follow our own preferences, so we carry the fight into the legislatures. We want to pass laws on others’ consumption because… well, because we’re right and those other people are wrong. Some are more live-and-let-live about it – even if this means, in some instances, live-and-let die – but that is a political position, too.

One of the currently fashionable food regimens – and one that faces numerous legal restrictions, especially with regard to dairy products – is the Raw Food Diet. It is pretty much what it sounds like. Cooking is out. Vegetables, milk, eggs, and meat are served raw. Some raw foodies are vegetarians, but most are not. They argue that cooking destroys nutrients, causes weight gain, introduces dangerous chemicals (notably char) into food, and “processes” food in a way that is fundamentally unnatural. Opponents of the diet cite the dangers of E. coli, salmonella, and other dangerous bugs; they say that pasteurization was adopted for a reason. They also note that some very healthy foods such as beans and lentils can’t be digested properly without cooking

There is something to both perspectives, and I’m not inclined to stop anyone who cooks or who doesn’t cook. I’d like to lift restrictions on selling raw unpasteurized milk to anyone willing to take the risk of drinking it. Nevertheless, it may be an error to consider uncooked foods more natural. They are natural, true enough. Paleo peoples ate many things raw (as we still commonly eat fruits and some veggies), but there is substantial evidence that, in human evolutionary terms, raw foods are not more natural.

Chris Organ, evolutionary biologist at Harvard: “This is part of an emerging body of science that shows that cooking itself is important for our biology; that is, we are biologically adapted for cooking food.” The oldest undisputed barbeque pit dug up by archaeologists is a mere 400,000 years old, though this still predates biologically modern humans. Harvard researchers, including Organ, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, point to dental development in human ancestors as far back as 1,900,000 years ago as evidence the practice is much older. Their analysis supports an argument made by Richard Wrangham a couple years ago in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Other apes, including our chimp cousins, spend a lot of time eating and chewing in order to extract calories from raw food. According to the researchers, chimps spend a third of the day at it. Modern human hunter-gatherers spend only 5% of their waking hours doing the same. Unsurprisingly, teeth reflect the difference, with heavy duty chimp molars and small delicate human molars. Humans also have weak jaws, small stomachs, and intestines only 60% the length of other great apes. Humans don’t need to chew so hard because cooked food is softer; our smaller simpler digestive system is more than adequate for our needs because cooked food gives up its calories far more easily. The reduction in tooth size shows up very early among our ancestors. Largely on the basis of dentition (and rib structure, which indicates gut size), Organ said, "We think that Homo erectus and Neanderthals were spending about as much of their day feeding as we do, which implies that they were both cooking." In short, cooking techniques are intertwined with hominin evolution.

This Sunday I plan to fire up the charcoal grill (a midsummer day’s scheme) with the usual suspects invited. The burgers, steaks, and corn-on-the-cob that will get tossed onto it may not be particularly healthy. But evidently they are natural – or at least as natural as raw ones would be. Homo Erectus might not have recognized the particular meats and veggies on the grill – all of them have been modified vastly from ancestral species by farmers and pastoralists in the past 10,000 years – but he would have recognized a cookout when he saw one. I like to think our conversation will be a bit more advanced than his, but perhaps it’s best not to get one’s hopes up. Also, I’ll strike a match to light the fire, rather than rub sticks the paleo way.

Quest for Fire (1981)