I’ve lately become somewhat obsessed with a particular type of movie ending.
You know the one.
Our protagonist/antagonist has overcome whatever it is Joe Campbell said they must overcome. Happily ever after feels imminent, as underlined by perhaps the opening riffs of a familiar pop-tune. But our hero, they’ve still got one final punchline to drop, whether verbal or otherwise, right before a cut-to-black.
And that music? It plays. We hit the chorus, or an ironic line, or something that makes us smile almost as much as the punchline, hitting its stride just as the first names appear.
It’s a very specific type of ending, and to be honest, I have no idea if there’s a particular cinematic term for it. But you know what I’m talking about, right?
In case you’re unclear, here’s one – the final scene of the Wachowski’s paranoid red pill, The Matrix:
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At this point of the movie, we’ve just seen the protagonist literally return from the dead, a god reborn. The new, subversive king of an artificial world populated by human slaves spending their entire life asleep as part of the plot’s major twist: as our evil robot overlord’s organic power supply. Seeing Neo fly up out of shot like that for the first time, it’s a real moment. People do superhuman things inside the Matrix, but nobody’s ever flown. And to suddenly drop an entirely fresh twist like that, literally a few frames before the cut to black? The effect it has on the average nerdy viewer is close to orgasmic. But then consider the tune itself : Wake Up, by Rage Against The Machine. One of the seminal anti-establishment protest songs of that odd late-90s era, with no accident that it both matched the subversive themes of the film itself, but also that it quite literally has a title matching the central demand placed on all the major characters (and presumably the millions of sleepers) as the film closes – an awakening this new god will hopefully bring about.
It all works. All a bit obvious, perhaps, but in the heat of the moment, if you’re too caught up in the action to ponder it, the resulting end-of-the-movie moment is electrifying.
Though this technique does not necessary have to be a high-powered fist-bump, of the likes of Fight Club (‘Where Is My Mind?’) and Iron Man (though does that one count, the music starting arguably a touch late?) There’s also the softer, smoother exit via the exact same route, often creating as evocative and energetic a moment as the punches-in-the-face.
Take the final scene Wes Anderson’s classic, Rushmore:
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While our protagonist doesn’t actually do much more to advance the plot here, he does succeed at taking the hand of the woman he’d attempted to woo so unsuccessfully throughout the film. And perhaps in that final moment as the music begins to play, by hearing the mature way Max accepts his defeat, in taking his glasses off, Rosemary’s finally looking at him as a man, not the ridiculous young boy he’d been throughout the film. And the song itself… well, that says it all. As the verse swells, the film slows to almost a halt, as we see all major characters assemble for one final photo, our couple still very much the focus of the frame. And just as the cut to black (or in this case, the curtain close) finally occurs, the music reaches the chorus: “I wish that I knew what I know now”; a line whose relation to everything else one can hardly ignore. But are these the character’s thoughts, or that of the director himself? With Anderson’s name revealed immediately as the line is sung, perhaps this busts the fourth wall for us slightly, the director having said on occasion how much of his own past he threaded into the film’s central character.
I love these moments, and yes, I’ve become obsessed.
Taking note of them for months. Collecting them. Stashing them away for some unknown purpose, unknown even to me at this point. The novel I’m currently developing has accidentally wound up with moment like it winding through the narrative and tying up the ending. Part of me even thinks there might be an idea buried amongst this odd collection to form the premise of an entire story in itself. Perhaps a tale about someone bound by a collection of endings, the same way the protagonist in High Fidelity (another great end-of-the-movie play-out moment) seems bound by the songs and playlists of the women in his past.
Or is that just too obvious? Would it be more appropriate for a literary tie-in of this device to be something more down the ‘random swing track’ path Die Hard treads, or merely a stretching of the final mood as per the much-drooled-at Gosling-fest, Drive? Or is it foolish to even be trying to force this round cinematic peg into square literary hole?
I don’t know. And if I’m completely honest here, I have no idea why I’m collecting these. And yes, I am collecting them. Check out these sweet puppies on Spotify. Each one of them one of these very deliberate end-of-the-movie music moments (if you can guess them all). Well, not this one, which I kept on the list for no good reason than… well… who doesn’t think every playlist deserves a little Backstreet? And no, it really doesn’t count as one of my obsessional types. Party tracks, such as the play-out at the end of Dirty Dancing, or the odd moment at the end of 40 Year Old Virgin; this type of ending isn’t quite the same. They’re literally just playing the track, delivering a performance. Where’s the irony, the punch-in-the-face, protagonist’s final punchline? No, not quite as magical, no matter how awesome or appropriate a party playout can be as an ending.
My search shall continue, but until I reach whatever the unknown destination is, let me know if you think of any more.
And like, don’t you… forget about me…
The night started so innocently, but don’t they all?
We’ve all taken part in an epic evening where the intent was (and remained) evil from start to finish, but this wasn’t one of those. No, the nights out with the most horrendous aftermaths have a lot in common with effective, successful serial-killers: it’s always the quiet, respectable ones you need to keep an eye on.
This was back in Sydney, toward the end of ’11. Some friends of ours had invited us to a one-off family celebration, a special night for a unique milestone : all three generations of women in the family were celebrating their thirtieth, sixtieth and ninetieth birthdays that year. For extra points, the ‘thirty’ component belonged to a set of non-identical twins, dear friends of ours for years. The roundness of those numbers — their pattern, their alignment — was impossible to ignore, especially for a family renown for bringing together their wide circle of friends and extended family to celebrate far less auspicious-looking events.
The clan leaders booked out a great restaurant by the harbour, and invited about a hundred people to what looked and felt a lot like a wedding (minus the happy couple). Multiple tables full of well-dressed people, many of whom didn’t know one another, all loosened up with the generous “bottomless” champagne and whites the respectable per-head had bought us.
Now, I know what you’re thinking : already, that sounds dangerous. And yes, you’re right: any event that can be compared to a wedding banquet in terms of the expected alcohol volume, and the whole ‘your glass is always full thanks to attentive waiters’ factor should have had us predicting some kind of fall-out the next day. We knew it too. Duh. I’d planned ahead. I’d eaten a big lunch. I’d thrown back a lot of water during the afternoon. I’d come up with a strategy (“Stick with champagne and white wine, only. No beer. No spirits. No mixing, period. Then, water every second drink”) that, by all accounts, remains a sound and worthy alcoholic mantra even today.
In short, I was prepared for the worst. Despite the precautions, it was never far from my mind that this was still, technically, a ‘family gathering’, and that such heavy preparation was likely overkill. The elderly were to be well represented at this party, as well plenty of children. It’s not like we were heading out on a stag night — there was always going to be a certain lid on festivities, no matter how heavy those waiters were going to pour.
The last thing I remember with any clarity was of the few minutes following the main course.
There were speeches. I think. There was definitely a piper — as in actual bagpipes — wandering around at one point, but even then that memory is a little watery. What I do know is that for the couple of hours prior to where the mental tape-recorder cut out, I’d stuck to the plan. White. Sparkling. Water. Very well behaved, albeit far too talkative.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I have a single-image memory of sitting in the back seat of a taxi in the dark, and of not being able to focus on anything outside the window. That, and another single-image flash of our bedroom, of trying to make an impassioned point, the topic of which I have no solid recall.
My next memory was of what I always start off a Sunday morning hangover with: that pounding headache that wakes me up (like clockwork) somewhere very close to 7am.
(Side note : there’s not much to be said about that headache. We all know that pain. It feels like death. It goes on and on. The only thing special about it and its attachment to The Most Disturbing Hangover I Ever Had was that none of the regular tricks and cures had any effect on it until much later than they would on any other Sunday hangover. No, not “after I finally ate something”. Not even “somewhere around lunchtime”. That bastard lingered all the way through until about 7pm, presumably the point where my liver had finally cleared enough debris to finally consider dealing with the paracetamol. Unheard of.)
I’m not one of those bed-bound hangover types. I get up. I jump in the shower. I pace around. I go for walks, breathe fresh air. Sometimes I even go for a bike ride. Nothing was different about that particular hangover. Yet. I got straight out of bed, wandered over to the other end of our apartment where the main bathroom was (the non-ensuite one). Cat’s definitely a bed-bound hangover person. I figured if I was rolling a classic 7am up-and-at-’em routine, she was probably rolling her standard static/grumbly/anti-social routine as well. Meaning : I needed to clear the room, fast. I headed for the bathroom at the other end of the apartment.
Words can barely describe what I found next.
The best comparison would be to an aftermath scene in any modern zombie film: walls, floor, mirrors dolloped and splattered in red (vomit, not blood), the intricate spray-patterns only broken by the long, chaotic smears of hand and footprints. The handprints were the most mysterious. Sick and hungover as I was, I took the time to walk into the room and take a good look around at them, to try and figure it all out. Hell, there were even prints smeared all over the back of the door. WTF?
None of it made any sense. I was certain none of it was my handiwork, as I’d been drinking white and champagne all night, waters in between. Nothing to explain the redness of the puke, in any case. Perhaps Cat? But no; she’d have definitely woken me up at some point, either to complain about being that close to death, or the sheer volume of the liquid cacophony that would have been echoing out of that room and down the hallway at the time. Surely I couldn’t have slept through that. Just how drunk had I been?
It wasn’t long before the stench overpowered me, my body stepping in with a not-so-gentle reminder that I was both severely hungover myself, and a sympathetic vomiter. However, during that intimate first trip to the toilet bowl, I noticed more curiosities. There was a massive splash against the wall beside the toilet itself, far, far away from anywhere someone could hit by simply ‘missing’ the bowl, no matter how sick or uncoordinated. Then, after I’d finished emptying my own mostly-empty stomach (clear liquids only – I checked), a further mystery appeared when I closed the lid to the toilet : red vomit all over the cistern and the top of the toilet seat, and more handprints. Bizarre swirls.
Finally, a picture began to form. I imagine it’s how those crime-scene investigators work; quietly assessing the scene, putting themselves into the mind of their imagined perp, reliving every action and reaction. Piece by piece I was seeing a chronology, a possible timeline, something of a sequence, the only one that all the jigsaw pieces would fit nicely into.
So far as I could figure, I’d passed out drunk not long after we got home, Cat fleeing the room, clearly unwell. She would have closed the bedroom door, cause she’s nice (and wouldn’t have wanted me to hear what came next). Perhaps she’d puked a little in the ensuite first, then, anticipating more, came down to the other bathroom, closing all doors behind her. By then she was desperate — she’d started the initial heaving just before she got to the bathroom (Exhibit: A – first spray of the floor just inside the door). The handprints near the light switch would have been the hand that covered the mouth as she ran, printing the wall as she switched the lights on. The ones on the back of the door? Her closing yet another door for sound-muffling purposes. The random spraying around the room between there and the toilet was explained by all this light-and-door business taking up far too much time. Yes. Definitely that. The footprints backed it up.
So far so good.
But then we get to the mysterious toilet/lid/wall combo. The only thing that fit that splatter pattern was this: upon making it to the toilet, now in a blind panic having started projectile vomiting over near the door, she was in too much of a hurry to notice the toilet lid was closed, puking anyway. The error would have been obvious immediately, though now deep into the heaving, she’d have been unlikely to stop the flow, open the lid, start again. She’d have kept spraying the whole time it took her to lift her head (hitting the cistern), turn slightly to the right to avoid being hit in the face on the lid’s way up (spraying the wall in the odd location), then finally aiming the flow back to the bowl itself (explaining the remaining splatter range).
From there, the rest was obvious : down on her knees, the foot and handprints indicated someone at the drunken end of their tether trying to pull themselves upright, clean themselves off a little under the sink at the basin, then stumble off back toward the bedroom.
I had plenty to mull over during the shower that followed this initial investigation. My headache had really kicked in by then, but at least I wasn’t feeling all that sick anymore. I took my time. A good, slow neck massage. Then, an attempt at some of the cleaning, before yet another shower after, to get that smell off me. Eventually I got into some fresh clothes and returned to the bedroom, to see what sort of terrible state Cat must be in. I mean, after all that, she must have been experiencing The Worst Hangover Ever herself.
Imagine my surprise.
Back in the bedroom, she wasn’t only awake, she was fine. Not sick at all. A little tired, perhaps. Slight headache. Not too worse for wear. Having taken that temperature, I decided it was time to address the mess she’d made of the bathroom:
“Are you okay? I mean, you made a pretty serious mess in there.”
A look of incredulity.
“Ummm… what do you mean, ‘the mess I made in there’?”
She was laughing. I wasn’t. That wasn’t my mess. My central argument had always been the white/champagne strategy, and that what I was just slipping around in back there was something like a bold, fruity Cab Sav. I said as much.
“Great theory, professor, except the part where you were running up and down the tables at the end.”
“Remember? You and Nando, throwing back the leftovers in everyone’s discarded glasses? I tried to stop you.”
I was speechless. Shocked, even. Funny, because that one detail was nothing — NOTHING — compared to the story that then unfolded.
It seems my clever alcohol consumption strategy had failed. This business with Nando didn’t sound like something I would do, but at the same time, didn’t sound like something I wouldn’t do, inebriated beyond a certain level. Given I was already certain I’d lost a few hours of memory (something that had only happened to me on a handful of occasions, ever), I was going to have to give her the benefit of the doubt, and accept her tale on face value.
According to numerous accounts of that night which I have collected since, the following happened during the three hour period (I’m assured I remained awake/conscious for) from the point where my memory drops out :
- I broke from the plan, and moved from white to red wine.
- Later, I moved from red wine to scotch.
- Later still, “water in between” was replaced by tequila shots.
- Once everyone was up on the dance floor, yes, Nando and I did run up and down the vacated dinner tables, throwing back whatever liquid we found in discarded glasses. (The way Nando remembers this, it was some kind of race.)
- I did not refrain from joining the others on the dance-floor. When the DJ put on the 80s classic, ‘What A Feeling’ (from Flashdance), I not only performed a passable rendition of the dance moves from the film-clip, but even finished it off with that iconic move with the chair. Worse, I didn’t skimp on the “pour ice water over myself” part either. The crowd had formed a circle around me.
- As this was a family function — someone else’s family, mind you — there was a moment where the entire extended clan tried to take a group photo (about forty people). The intention was for a ‘family-only’ shot. Apparently, I wanted to be in it too. Like, I really wanted to. Every time they tried to take it, I (physically, literally) dived into frame at the last second, ruining things. Eventually, they gave up trying to keep me out of the photo, and took a couple of photos with me in it. Then, all pretending things were done, Cat lead me away with a wink, whereby the entire family reassembled and took the REAL family photo. Those other shots with me in them survive. The expression on my face is another man’s, someone I don’t know.
- I allegedly caused a bit of trouble in the taxi as well, but Cat has never gone into great detail about it.
- Once we got home, I ranted for an hour about how much I loved this Australian horror film I’d absolutely hated sober. Wouldn’t shut up about it. Pacing. Lecturing. Cat just wanted to sleep. Sensing my audience was fading, I simply left at some point, turned out the light, not to be heard from (verbally) until morning.
- Cat did hear signs of liquid trouble from the other bathroom, but opted to leave bad enough alone. Wise.
Shameful. Absolutely shameful.
I was that guy at the party. You know? That guy. The one who’s funny for the first few minutes, but then after a while you just want him to go away, or pass out, or both. I’d never been that guy before. Or had I? I didn’t know anymore. There’s a lot about myself learned during that aftermath. I mean, who knew I’d memorised the entire choreography to the theme from Flashdance? Just who is that guy?
The questions of identity got even murkier several hours later, when another detail emerged. One that shook me to the core, and still does to this day.
Later that Sunday, Cat had finally convinced me to eat something, and do my best to keep it down. It was 1pm or something by then — I was in the Deep Deep Death stage of a brutal hangover. You know the one: the world was nothing more than a dark place that wanted to hurt me. My headache was terrible. My state of mind was so bad that I hadn’t even complained when she rented Sex & The City 2 on iTunes and made us both sit through it. (I take back what I said before about Cat being nice. Sneaking that film in front of my eyeballs was evil. So, so evil.)
After that was done, we’d gone out for a walk. Fresh air. I was whinging pretty hard about my headache, but overall, starting to feel a bit better. That is, until she hit me with a fresh, terrifying new detail from the night before:
“Oh, I nearly forgot. I have a message for you.”
“Yeah. From Drunk Demis.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in the middle of that movie rant, Drunk Demis told me I had to give Hungover Demis a message from him later, at the point where Hungover Demis really started complaining about his headache.”
“Really? What was the message?”
“He said to say : ‘Whatever, fatty’.”
Now, at this point in time, Cat had never been part of that particular work-place in-joke. There was no way she could know the phrase, nor its relevance. I won’t bother going into to its meaning now, but basically, those two words proved that Drunk Demis himself had sent the message, and that she wasn’t lying. Also, the darker implication: it proved that I was no longer one person, but two. Worse still, it proved that Drunk Demis wasn’t merely a second, sentient, all-singing, all-dancing personality (with shitty taste in movies) lurking inside me, but he was also a something of a jerk.
(Well, not entirely. I noted later that Drunk Demis had the good sense to have taken off my expensive suit jacket before entering the vomitorium, folding it more perfectly than I normally manage at the best of times. Drunk Demis sounds like a bit of a kooky character on the whole, but at least the guy’s good at laundry.)
Every time I have gone out for more than one drink since, I’ve remembered Drunk Demis, the zombie movie, and the infamous Thirty-Sixty-Ninety party. I’ve had some pretty good benders in my time, but that one will always stand apart, not only for the severity of its psychological aftermath, but that a booze-only bender was capable of extracting from my depraved depths darker elements than any longer, crazier, druggier bender ever has.
The toughest part is that there’s no moral to this story. There’s no lesson to be learned from it, apart from the utterly stupid one that begins: “Step One : Quit Drinking” (…ha!). I was careful. I had a plan, and I thought I was sticking to it. The way I’ve tried to come to terms with it since is to think that yeah, sometimes, no matter how smart you think you are, how in control, shit sometimes happens, but even then, as a ‘lesson’, that’s a bit of a stretch.
If there was one thing to take away from the incident, perhaps it’s buried somewhere in that sentiment about keeping your eye on the quiet ones. I’ve never heard from Drunk Demis again. Not yet, in any case, but that’s not to say he’s not out there, lurking somewhere, practicing his jacket-folds, being oh-so-very quiet.
There’s a certain insight which comes from being of the generation whose feet are flirtatiously planted in both the modern, online world and the one that came before.
I get technology. My home is on the Internet, I haven’t read a paper book in years, am social-media-saturated to the teeth, and definitely the first to complain about getting crampy every time I’m asked to clutch an old-school pen for longer than a signature. Like so many of my thirtysomething age, despite having watched life and technology transform so drastically over our lifetimes, it’s become almost impossible to remember much of what things were like before. Like, as teenagers, how on earth did we ever get by without mobile communication, Instagram, and an unlimited supply of porn? It’s been a brave new world, one we stepped boldly into it without hesitation.
Every now and then, a remnant of that returns. A random memory of childhood. An old music video. Finding a random box of personal crap in a forgotten corner of that battered box full of our personal possessions. It’s those times that it all comes back, bringing with it a sudden sense of loss. I’m not talking about stock-standard nostalgia either. For me it’s specifically that other thing: remembering what living analogue was like, and missing — albeit briefly — what getting my hands dirty feels like.
I’m not knocking progress — all power to it. But in an age where there’s an easy online template for everything, where your interests, life and hobbies are all tagged and broadcasted, where it’s so easy to manufacture your own miniature Warholian fifteen minutes in the virtual, viral limelight, there’s something to be said for still knowing how to move people (not pixels), work with your hands, getting out there in the sweaty old world, and doing stuff.
All technical, creative, and filmmaking differences you may have with this aside, it’s the central character of Max Fischer (artfully portrayed by Jason Schwartzman) which has always summed up that part of me that doesn’t want to be stuck at a desk all day.
Max Fischer is a doer.
Trapped in the body of a spotty 15-year-old loser is a man of rather extreme passions, who, despite living in the greyest urban drab, manages to punch well above his weight and do things, not just dream and talk.
During the course of the film, his plan to successfully woo a young pretty teacher, Miss Cross (played by the lovely Olivia Williams) is ultimately doomed to fail. However it’s the way he goes about his day-to-day which appeals to the doer to me, even at a first viewing instantly rocketing the film to my ‘All-time Top Five’.
We see Max direct epic plays, occasionally involving on-stage dynamite and full-size replica helicopters being flown in. Though academically an extreme underachiever, Max chases, instigates and runs practically every extra-curricular activity or hobby he can think of (everything from Go-Karting, Fencing, Kite-flying, and a Mock UN Club). When he notices his beloved teacher, Miss Cross, has a fondness for tropical fish, he sets about finding funding from a local businessman (Bill Murray) to establish a multi-million-dollar aquarium, complete with architects, contractors a fanfared ground-turning ceremony on his school’s baseball pitch (without permission).
Even once things get nasty — Bill Murray’s character naturally swooping in on Miss Cross — Max still manages to carry out his rather inventive maliciousness with style. The sequence of the film where both characters go head to head trying to destroy one another is still my favourite, bringing everything from falling trees, cut brake cables and large-scale character assassination into the mix. (I can still recall choking on my popcorn the first time I saw Max emerge, slow-motion from a hotel elevator, framed like a guilty assassin, an empty Beekeeping box in his hand, having just delivered his weapon of buzzing destruction.)
The entire Rushmore universe is devoid of computers or anything online. Instead, it’s one filled with delicious physical props, battered typewriters and plenty of explosives. Anderson’s mix of charactured, melodramatic characters with comforting, ordinary ones only serves to make you want to be part of Max’s enthusiastic world all the more.
For my money, the modern world needs more Max Fischers.
Something of a doer myself, I’ve noted that in recent years I run into less and less of my proactive kin; people as passionate about their personal projects as they are about their jobs, social media profiles, or their favourite television shows. Worse, how few have anything resembling ‘personal projects’ in their life these days at all.
It’s so easy to enjoy the wonders of instant community and online content consumption that people are forgetting how to create, explore and innovate in the real world. I love that there are a whole lot of new techs that have sprung up that bridge the divide — the Makers, 3d printing, robotics — but those are hardly shaking loose any more than the types of boffins who would have been doing regardless of what era they were born in.
The excuses are always the same. Too busy. Too tired. “…[Something-something-something], but I really want to next month”. That’s not to say people don’t have dreams anymore, or good intentions. Many do, but so often, those dreams get over-run before they go anywhere, either through their priority not being high enough to matter, or by folks being just too tired to get inspired.
And hey, I get that too. The difference is, I’ve always got Max nagging me in the back of my head. Once every year or so, whenever I’m feeling flat, I dust off my old copy of Rushmore, and try to let his drive infect me. Max is the perfect tonic for feeling uninspired and digitally drained. Sure, we’re not always going to win at everything, but getting out there, getting sweaty, rolling with the punches, and never taking no for an answer when it comes to realising our dreams. That maybe, if you’re going to get stressed out and busy and caught up in something, why not let that be pursuing what you love? And while you’re at the dream-catching, how’s about bringing as many people along with you for the ride while you’re out there punching above your weight?
Rushmore is far from a perfect film for many. Most I mention it to wouldn’t consider it Anderson’s best, given how strong the rest of his directorial history has played out since 1998. But for me, it’ll always win out over all the rest, purely for being a film that continually, year after year, gets me up off my butt and away from the screen. Whether or not whatever mad scheme comes from it is just as doomed to fail as Max’s sometimes were, there’s never a good excuse not to try something once simply because there isn’t a default box for it on your Facebook profile?
“Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.” —Special Agent Dale Cooper, FBI
There’s a lot of wisdom to be had from any reading of David Lynch’s famed Twin Peaks from a culinary perspective. The characters inhabiting its twisted world are rarely seen consuming anything other than the finest of comfort foods—doughnuts, various pies, the occasional cherry stalk, and yes: plenty of damn fine coffee. It’s Cooper’s philosophy of self-gifting that’s stuck with me through the intervening years since my first viewing of series, and particularly his obsession with his cups of joe.
Let’s face it: people get a little silly about ‘their’ coffee. Fanatical pursuit of the good bean spans all demographics; bearded hipsters, high-strung executives, McCafé-dwelling labourers, the single-source foodie aficionados. Everyone has their own preference, their own big opinions on how coffee should be done, or what comprises a good one. Further, no matter what the formula, all coffee-drinkers are unified on one point: the only way you’ll get them to stop drinking it is to pry it from their cold, dead hands.
(Side note : a dietician once told me of a morbidly obese patient who refused to give up their five, daily, super-sized-double-cream-six-sugared chocolate lattes, regardless of a single serving being packed with 100% of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat…)
My journey with coffee has been a bumpy one. Despite chugging more cups through my university years to keep a couple of Starbucks franchises in business, my twenties saw a complete departure from the brew: I was told I was allergic to it, and that I’d need to stop. I was crestfallen, but I did comply. For nine, brutal years. It wasn’t so bad. I survived. I bitched and moaned a lot, doing my best at self-righteously broadcasting the few negative health effects I could Google whenever my co-workers seemed to be enjoying their morning and afternoon doses too much.
Fortunately, that dark period of my life didn’t last. A coffee-free world could not—nay, should not—be allowed to exist in any universe. A chance visit to a completely different practitioner, years later, and a candid question about my coffee allergy, changed everything:
“Oh, you did that allergy test? We don’t even do that anymore. Totally unreliable. I doubt you’re allergic to coffee at all.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The timing of the discovery was made even more fortuitous by my move to London, a city that, while labouring long under the guise of being ‘a tea city’, had a blossoming (hipster-driven) coffee culture. Like, the real sort. None of this Twin Peaks diner coffee business. (Honestly, I’d love to see how badly Agent Cooper’s mind would blow if he ever passed through Shoreditch.)
The shameful, cutting-a-long-story-short part of my tale is the personal aftermath: I’ve gone from being a man who’d diss and jeer anyone bragging about how good their coffee was every morning (me, back then: “Seriously? You drink the same shit every day. Coffee is either drinkable, or it’s not. You’re just addicted to the caffeine or something.”) to flipping to the opposite end of the scale: a man with an Aeropress, a bag of Kenya’s finest, and a shiny Japanese Porlex hand-cranked grinder he’s not afraid to use at his desk.
The me of five years ago would hate the me of this morning. I don’t go on about coffee that much. I don’t rub it in people’s faces. If anything, my current obsession with the ‘press is something I try to keep to myself. It’s bad enough being branded some kind of East London wanker for chipping away at novels while playing with an Oculus rift in a sharing-economy-friendly co-working space in an old Hackney Wick warehouse on the canal—the sight of that same wanker performing a smug hand-grind (while within reach of a perfectly respectable filter-based coffee machine) may just be enough to push a person’s sanity over the edge. The me of five years ago certainly wouldn’t like it—he’d have taken a bat to the Porlex weeks ago.
What I’m getting at is that I’d like to think Special Agent Cooper would understand. He’d get it, that the morning ritual, noisy, temperature-and-time-sensitive process is just another way of giving myself that daily present. It isn’t planned. Some days it doesn’t happen at all, but when it does? That five minutes of obsessive prep is worth it, every drop. I’m not perfect at it yet, but I’m getting better—even the educational/growth part of that morning cup has become part of Cooper’s brand of gift. Mostly, it’s just about sitting back with my cup, flipping up some morning cat videos, and enjoying one final moment of calm before the day takes over.
And really, isn’t that what Coop’s secret was really trying to get across, hand-cranked or otherwise?
If one should ask me what use there was in climbing, or attempting to climb the world’s highest peak, I would be compelled to answer ‘none.’ — George Mallory
You know those awkward moments where you’re at a friend’s dinner party, or at a restaurant, and something is placed before you that you don’t like the look of? Where an internal battle rages – whether to offend your host and pass, or munch down on it anyway, come what may? That decision governed by the answer to one and only one question : “How bad could it be?”
I know how bad it could be. I’ve tasted it. Twice.
Several years ago, while I was still living in Australia, I heard about Hákarl. “The world’s most disgusting food-stuff that you can eat and still live” was how I remember it being described. Put in less-poetic terms, it’s putrefied shark meat, it’s from Iceland, and it’s absolutely awful. Growing up a very fussy eater, somehow in my adult life I have swung the other way – trying everything, just in case there was something amazing out there I hadn’t tasted, making that a personal mission. You name the body part, bizarre root vegetable, I’ve probably nommed it down, or at the very least, wanted to. But to suddenly be aware that the adventurous culinary path did indeed have a limit? I had to try it.
Of course, at the time (and probably still today) it was nearly impossible to get the putrefied (i.e. cured by shoving slabs of poisonous shark meat underground for several months) flesh of a Greenland or basking shark past Australian quarantine officials. Even if that were something easy to do, the noxious, rotting, urea-dripping, formerly poisonous carrion would need to be transported cold all the way from Iceland to Sydney – something which sounded a little out of my regular food-curiosity budget.
Flash forward : late 2013…
Now based on London, I found myself sharing the office of a food industry startup in the midst of a promotion involving insect recipes. Naturally, during the course of the ‘crazy stuff we’ve eaten’ discussion that ensues when one is sharing a plate of ant tacos and cricket pad Thai with a couple of gents, the conversation turned to Hákarl.
A lightbulb suddenly tinked on – I was now living close enough to Iceland that maybe, just maybe, rotten shark was something one could procure without much drama.
Sure enough, I was right.
Within minutes, someone in Iceland was packing 100grams of the stuff into a box full of cold packs, my address plastered on the front. It arrived. It was eaten.
How did it taste? I’ll get to that in a moment…
Jump to last Friday…
Working in a different office on the opposite side of town, the Swedish gentleman sitting beside me posted a video of a bunch of non-Swedes failing dismally at eating Surströmming. I remembered seeing the Australian comedy duo, Hamish & Andy, doing a piece about it – the Swedish equivalent of Hákarl (if I may be so bold) except it’s rotten herrings, it comes in a can, and is a lot easier to get hold of. After my experience with Hákarl in November, I felt I had a story to tell, however with a proud Swede on my right, and an equally proud Norwegian on my left, the old rivalries (mixed with a dose of Australian bravado) meant suddenly Hákarl’s title of “world’s most disgusting food-stuff” was being brought into question.
Of course, nobody but myself had ever tried one of the two morsels in question — it seemed only right that I take the initiative to settle the discussion for once and for all. Getting hold of the Surströmming was even easier than I could ever have imagined it to be : there’s a Scandinavian deli only 100 metres from where we were arguing, and still a half an hour left before they closed for the day. You can probably figure out the rest.
To cut a long story very short, I have now consumed both countries’ rotten seafood delicacies, and feel I’m now one of the few people out there who can speak with good authority as to which is indeed The Worst.
I took good notes during November’s Hákarl experience, and am still feeling very fresh from the recent Surströmming tasting, occurring mere hours ago (I can still smell it on my hands in a few places the soap ceased helping). Regardless of any question as to the clarity or errors that might creep into recalling two experiences now separated by a few months, there’s a clear winner. Of that there is no question. In the battle between Hákarl and Surströmming for the title of “World’s Foulest Food”, I can speak with complete confidence as to which is indeed the worst. Rather than any further long-winded narrative, I’m going to table it, side-by-side, blow-for-blow, gulp-for-gulp :
(Note – I did attempt to shoot video for both tastings, but both attempts were met with bitter failure. Once those packs were opened, there was no mental space left for worrying about camera operation – if there were to be a next time, I promise to rope in a nostril-blocked friend to shoot.)
|Ease of procurement||Tricky and expensive.||Easy and cheap, like heroin.|
|Feeling going in…||Nervous dread, akin to a dentist’s waiting-room.||Cocky. I was all: “Been there, done that – this won’t be worse… 80% of Hákarl at its baddest.”|
|Package Opening||An immediate increase in the feeling of dread as an intense ammonia smell filled the room, followed by deep regret I hadn’t done this outside.||Was very prepared this time, and thought I was really clever utilising the balcony. The fermentation pressure build-up in the can sprayed liquid out everywhere, but I’d done the reading, and did all of the opening inside a plastic bag. Still feeling cocky at this point – for about 0.5 seconds.|
|Initial Stench||Terrifying. Very, very strong ammonia smell, mixed in with a smell that’s like the worst thing you’d ever smell down at the docks where fishing boats come in, multiplied by around 100. Stomach was fine with it – I felt a deep dread that I was about to eat what was causing the smell, but my stomach was behaving itself – no gags.||Much, much worse than anticipated. Less ammonia, more of a shit smell at first, hints of sulfur, before hitting my nostrils with a overwealming assault of that ‘death’ smell. That, and a few hints of the same ‘where fishing boats come in’ smell – there were notes that were quite similar to that of Hákarl, but only a few. A very different beast. Involuntary gagging began within two seconds of the can opening.|
|Stench Growth||The ammonia smell definitely got worse the closer you put the food to your mouth, but it did not change much over time, in either intensity or flavour. Once you know what Hákarl smells like – it makes you wish you were dead – find small comfort in the knowledge that that’s all you’re going to be dealing with.||The smell only got worse over time, and changed its tone constantly. Just as you thought you were getting a handle on one aspect of it, something else would hit you. There were simply too many smells for my brain to cancel out or keep control of, all of them 10/10 horrible, all of them building over time.|
|Stench Linger-time||I mananaged to clean the kitchen out fine, the smell gone completely within 20 minutes with the help of the stove-top extractor fan and some lavender-scented bathroom air-freshener.||Unsure, though already the linger time has beaten Hákarl by a long shot. I can’t get the stuff off my hands. I made the mistake of trying to film the experience on my phone, and smudged some juice on the touch-screen at one point – my phone now smells too, even though I’ve wiped that spot down with several chemicals. I don’t think it’ll ever die from whatever it touched. How do you kill something that’s already dead? Oh god. Make it stop.|
|Appearance||Clean-looking white cubes. Not scary at all while they were in their vacuum pack. Deceptively safe-looking until the point you snip open the package and let the smell out.||Once the can was open, the contents looked exactly like what it was : a sludge of rotten fish. There was nothing appetizing about the presentation. Nothing. It looked as bad as it smelled. (Sorry, as it smells. SMELLS. Present tense. Make it stop…). At least it wasn’t pretending, not like Hákarl. Even if you can’t smell it, Surströmming looks like something you don’t want to eat.|
|Texture||Rubbery at first, but more powdery/melty as you chew. Interesting texture.||Exactly as you’d imagine sloppy, wet, rotten fish would be, complete with bones, skin, oily bits, sticky bits, gross bits, fins, lots of watery rotten-brine mixture…|
|First Bite||I did as the literature suggests – placed the first piece in my mouth and inhaled deeply through the nose, experienceing the icy – almost menthol? – burn of the ammonia up my nostrils. Wholly unpleasant based on how terrible the smell was at this point, but an unexpected novelty element with the burning. There was a sense of danger in this – nothing that does what that gas did to my nose should be going inside my body. I could still feel the burn of it hours later. Oddly, the flesh itself didn’t taste so bad – not if you forget the smell for a moment. Just… fishy. The smell was disproportionately terrible compared to the taste by a factor of at least 1000.||By the time I had the first piece in my mouth, trying to bite through the skin/bone/flesh, the juices splattering over my face and hands, my stomach had had enough. There was no time to savour or think about the experience. I knew I only had seconds left, as my chest was already hunched and heaving. The only strange thing I did notice was that the flesh itself felt almost fizzy on my tongue at one point, like bubbles in beer. This didn’t help anything. It was all wrong. All so very wrong. The smell. THE SMELL.|
|The Chew||I took my time. The fact that I wasn’t already puking, and had survived the nostril thing, gave me time to note the textural change from rubber to powder as I got through it. It’s not like I was smiling though – this wasn’t pleasant. It was horrible. I kept thinking of that line from Harry Potter describing the experience of encountering a ‘Dementor’ – such misery that I wasn’t certain I’d ever feel cheerful again.||My stomach was already fighting the experience very hard, way before the flesh even got to my mouth. I had to keep the chewing to a minimum. My time was up.|
|The Swallow||Nothing exciting: I swallowed. I stood there in that cloud of ammonia stench, bracing myself for something worse to happen, but nothing did. I felt truly horrible, staring blankly, trying to recover from the ordeal. I questioned why I’d done this in the first place. The smell filled my head and soul, and I couldn’t escape it – that ammonia death smell was inside me now. I was its bitch.||My time was long over by the time I got up to swallowing. As I began to swallow, the retching began. I continued to try, and believe at one point I managed to get the mouthful about half-way down my throat, but it wasn’t long before I was bent over the plastic bag puking Surströmming back into the can. Then, an extended period of dry-retching. It took about a minute before I had the presence of mind to force myself away from the source of the smell, which was doing most of the ongoing damage. As for the herring, I doubt I digested any more than a fraction of a gram of the stuff in the end. My body simply said “NO” to Surströmming.|
|Immediate Aftermath||I felt dirty and afraid. I wondered when the sickness would start. I wondered why I’d put myself through that. I wondered how far away the bin would need to be from my house so that I never had to smell that ammonia/fishy stench again once I threw it out. I thought about my own mortality, and how fragile life was.||There was no time for reflection. As soon as I’d finished puking, I ran inside, gathered five or six plastic bags, and set about wrapping up the source of the death-smell. That stench was just seemed to keep growing in volume and menace similar to the black-cloud monster thing from ‘Lost’, spreading out like a nuclear fallout that badly needed to be contained, and fast. There was a desperation and urgency to removing all trace of it from my house, from my life. I was down the street within 60 seconds, where I carefully placed the six-times-wrapped-but-still-opened can upright at the bottom of a bin that I wouldn’t smell when they emptied it. I feel sorry for those garbage men. I really do, but this had quickly become a self-preservation issue, consequences be damned.|
|Extended Aftermath||My skin felt greasy all afternoon, and I had a sort of ‘after-smell’ going on for the rest of the day. My nostrils felt like they were a little sunburned, and along with the slight burn feeling, a very slight ammonia smell lingered, though that could have been in my head. I still can’t bring myself to remember the precise smell of Hákarl even now – it was a scarring experience, and one I’d rather not repeat.||I’m mostly just hoping that I don’t end up in a discussion where somebody claims to have found something worse to eat than Surströmming. Surely this is the limit. It was for me at least. I don’t think I’m going to get over it for a while, though fortunately as I didn’t digest any of it, I don’t feel sick or anything now. With the Hákarl I felt a bit funny all afternoon, but with this, if I could get the last of the smell off my fingers/phone, I’d be feeling no adverse physical effects now, only mental ones.|
|Overall Feeling||There is no reason for people to feel they need to eat Hákarl for anything other than a dare, or to discover their persoal extremes as I have. It was wholly unpleasant. However, now that I have tasted Surströmming, I can at least appreciate that there was a certain degree of ‘crafting’ in Hákarl. The smell, as bad as it was, was an interesting one which felt ‘human made’, almost like it had been created in a lab. Regardless of how repulsive the smell is, looking back now I feel like there’s some intent behind it in a strang sort of way. Plus, for to keep the title of World’s Worst, it needs to actually taste bad. It didn’t taste that bad – it merely smelled bad. If you pinch your nose and eat Hákarl, it’s nowhere nearly as bad as pinching your nose and eating Surströmming.||There is no reason for people to feel they need to eat Surströmming at all, ever, for any reason. If I had to chose between eating Hákarl every day of my life or eating Surströmming one more time, I would still go with the daily shark. It was horrible in so many more ways that Hákarl wasn’t. I walked away from the shark dish in November feeling like I’d touched the edge of the Universe, but in reality, I hadn’t come even close. This is by far the worst thing a human can ever eat. I’ve accidentally eaten dog-shit before – this was worse. I’ve accidentally sipped some urine that had been congealing in a plastic drink bottle for several months – this was worse (but only just – in a remarkably similar ball-park). Don’t try this, thinking it’s going to be cool. It’s not going to be cool trying something so gross. It’s going to be horrible. You are going to vomit. You are going to wish you’d never gotten yourself into this in the first place. There’s no silver-lining to the experience, apart from the thought that perhaps, eating it with Swedish locals, already fully tanked on very, very strong clear spirits, you’re just drunk enough that you keep more of it down than I did. Horrible. Words can’t describe it.|
The final result?
Surströmming is, by far, the world’s most foul thing designed to be eaten by human beings.
Congratulations, Sweden, and IN YOUR FACE, ICELAND!
The Swedes have this one completely sealed. There’s something truly horrendous about Hákarl that I don’t want to take away from our Icelandic friends – it *is* incredibly horrible, and I love the crazy way it’s prepared – but the fact that I walked into the Swedish sitting thinking it might be easier, only to be uncontrollably gagging within seconds of the can hissing its vile stench out into the world? No. Just, no.
Hákarl is definitely a 10-out-of-10 experience for people looking to expand their culinary horizons all the way down into the darkest depths of putrefied-shark depravity, and that’s fine. If you can get your hands on some, knock yourself out. Have a laugh with your friends. Brag about it, as I did, on Facebook. But know, deep in your heart of hearts, that while you just gulped down an ammonia-soaked 10-out-of-10, that just across the sea, there lurks an eleven…
Don’t do it, folks. Either of them.
I feel dirty.